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Did US action in Syria really trigger 'brain death' of NATO?

Did US action in Syria really trigger 'brain death' of NATO?
Copyright Reuters
Copyright Reuters
By Rachael Kennedy
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Emmanuel Macron has blamed the US for causing the "brain death" of NATO — but how accurate is the French president's assessment?


Emmanuel Macron raised eyebrows across Europe after suggesting the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is experiencing "brain death" in the current geopolitical climate.

The French president's comments to The Economist pointed toward perceived self-serving actions of several member nations that he says are in breach of NATO allies' interests.

Germany, the US and even NATO itself have rejected Macron's criticisms — Angela Merkel called them "drastic" — but does he have a point?

US withdrawal from Syria: a timeline

Macron's comments were purposefully directed at recent behaviour in Syria by two particular French NATO allies: Turkey and the United States.

It began in October with US President Donald Trump ordering the withdrawal of troops from northern Syria in an act widely seen as a betrayal of the Kurdish-led forces based there, and who had been a crucial ally in the battle against the Islamic State.

But it wasn't just the Kurds who felt abandoned. The US had also failed to consult NATO allies — most notably the leading powers from France, Germany and the UK — who were caught off guard by the withdrawal.

In his Economist interview, Macron said this behaviour demonstrated how the US was "turning its back on us."

Syrians pelted American troops with potatoes as they left Qamishli, northeastern SyriaReuters

The withdrawal not only stoked fears of a resurgence of Islamic State, but also paved the way for Turkey to act upon its own interests in the region.

Turkey sees the Kurdish YPG forces as terrorists due to their affiliation with the Kurdistan People's Party (PKK), and therefore wants to push them back from Turkish border with Syria.

It wants to create a "safe zone" in this region, where it also plans to relocate millions of Syrian refugees that were forced to flee to Turkey during the conflict.

And so, following the US withdrawal from northern Syria, Turkish forces launched their expected incursion shortly thereafter.

'Collective defence': NATO's Article 5

As the fighting against Kurdish-led forces ensued, discussion turned to what could happen if Turkey were to find itself in a position where it could invoke Article 5 of the NATO treaty.

Article 5 stipulates that "an attack on one ally is considered an attack on all allies" and calls for a "collective defence" from other members.

But would Turkey try to invoke the clause, placing members states in the difficult position of standing opposite their former allies?

After a back-and-forth between the US and Turkey, including the threat of sanctions, the US eventually brokered a five-day ceasefire to allow the Kurds time to move back from the border region.

But even before the ceasefire was over, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned to the West's common foe — Russia.

Sergei Chirikov/Pool via REUTERS
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin met for talks in SochiSergei Chirikov/Pool via REUTERS

Turkey 'moves closer to Russia's orbit'

Turkey and Russia agreed a deal that would move the Kurds back and see joint Turkey-Russia patrols along the border.

From Tal Abyad to Ras al-Ain, Turkey would be in charge, while Russia and Syria would look after the rest.

Google Maps
Under the deal with Russia, Turkey would control the area between Tal Abyad and Ras al-AinGoogle Maps

Speaking to Euronews, Middle East expert and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics Ghoncheh Tazmini said the geopolitical landscape in northeast Syria "is rapidly reconfiguring with shifting alliance patters as Russians and Turks replace US troops that had been patrolling the area."

She added: "Alignment with Russia ensures Turkey a higher chance of achieving it strategic priorities," but it is also "helping Russia prevent the US from establishing a military presence in western Syria."

Meanwhile, the US had already threatened Turkey with sanctions over its discussions with Russia on the possible purchase of SU-35 jets.

It came after the US placed an embargo on the sale of its F-35 jets to Turkey, which was also in retaliation to Turkey precuring a S-400 missile system from, again, Russia.

"The strategic aspects of Russia's courtship of Turkey cannot be overlooked," Tazmini said, adding: "Turkey is clearly moving closer in the Russian orbit"


Why are Europe's NATO Allies concerned?

According to Tazmini, "the question on the mind of Europeans is whether Russia, Turkey and indeed Iran — the only foreign military players left on the scene — will usher in a sustainable bargain regarding Syria's political future, or whether they will simply facilitate its continued use as a battleground to drive their own agendas (which include some legitimate regional concerns)."

Not only this, she added, but Turkey's alliance could also help to bolster Moscow's reputation in the region.

The agreement "is a victory for the Kremlin, which is determined to act as a co-manager of international affairs," she said.

"Chaos in northeastern Syria, or low-level conflict in general works to Moscow’s advantage as it presents yet another arena in which Russia can present itself as a stabilising force, and a responsible global player, and even kingmaker."

And, ultimately, the US retreat from northern Syria, followed by joint Russa-Turkey operations "serve that end".


"Russia is now able to assert itself in a long-contested part of Syria — essentially a former US protectorate — giving Moscow a new opportunity to press for Syrian army gains while projecting itself as a rising power broker."

NATO death 'unavoidable?'

Events in Syria may highlight the deepening cracks in an already fragile relationship, but they are not the first sign of trouble.

Walter Russell Mead, an expert in international relations and a fellow at the Hudson Institute, wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal earlier this year setting out the self-serving actions of other NATO members.

"The idea [of NATO's death] was once unthinkable, but after the German cabinet decided to keep defence spending as low as 1.25% of gross domestic product for the next five years it has become unavoidable."

This is not due to Germany needing to make spending cutbacks, he said, which must mean that NATO and the US "are not as important to Germany as they used to be."

Macron says we are experiences the "brain death" of NATOReuters

Meanwhile, Germany and Russia are in cooperation on a Nord Stream 2 pipeline, leaving other neighbouring states such as Poland and the Baltics "deeply fearful".

Italy, also, has partnered up with China for its Belt and Road initiative, Russell Meal wrote.

Macron's comments this week could also be interpreted as somewhat self-serving. The French president is known for his staunch support of the concept of a European army, which some worry would be a parallel organisation to NATO.

But NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg spoke on Thursday to reinforce his belief that "any attempt to distance Europe from North America risks not only to weaken the Alliance, the transatlantic bond, but also to divide Europe."

He added: "I welcome European unity. I welcome efforts to strengthen European defence, but European unity cannot replace transatlantic unity."


The orginal needs for NATO have also changed, and repurposing has "clearly fallen short," Mead said.

"It is still a valuable institution," he wrote, adding: "But without a change of heart on the part of its most important members, the outlook for NATO is poor."

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