US and Europe drifting apart over Middle East strategies

US and Europe drifting apart over Middle East strategies

Ever since Donald Trump was elected to office little more than a year ago, relations across the Atlantic have been, at best, tense. While British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron have attempted to meet Trump halfway, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s relations with the US president remain frosty. The popular mood in major European countries is even more disdainful of the new president. It is on the Middle East, above all, where European policy diverges significantly from the Trump administration’s approach. Recent events and diplomatic maneuverings have shown that the major European players are trying to carve out an independent space for their policy in the region, sometimes at the expense of the long-established American position. European relations with Iran and Turkey, their approach to the Qatar crisis, and their stance on the Jerusalem watershed have stood in marked contrast, if not outright opposition, to Trump’s policy. European and American post-Daesh strategies for Iraq and Syria seem aligned, but only for the time being.

Trump came into office with a plan to roll back what he saw as expanding Iranian influence in the Middle East. Yet, when he tried to use the Iran nuclear deal as a tool for political pressure, European diplomats and businessmen went into a frenzy. European leaders renewed their commitment to the nuclear agreement with Iran and were willing to stick to the deal even if Trump abandoned it. They called for dialogue about other thorny issues, such as Iran’s ballistic missile program. And, when the recent protests erupted in Iran, Europe’s position was lukewarm, as opposed to Trump’s fiery support for the demonstrators. European diplomats were also uneasy about Trump taking the issue to the UN Security Council.

Commitment to international treaties and Iranian sovereignty, however, are not Europe’s primary motives for defying Trump on Iran. In the first half of 2017, there was a 94 percent increase in trade between Europe and Iran over the same period in 2016. Even though major banks are still reluctant to handle Iranian transactions, other European entities are scrambling for their cut, signing agreements with dozens of Iranian banks to finance projects. The European Commission, the highest executive body in the EU, has proposed allowing the European Investment Bank to operate in Iran in the future. German and French businessmen have accompanied their countries’ top diplomats on visits to Tehran. These burgeoning financial and economic relations, and EU-US differences on Iran, are expected to grow in the coming months.

Ties between Europe and Turkey have been worsening ever since the 2015 refugee crisis. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism since the July 2016 abortive coup has only made matters worse. European leaders asserted that anti-democratic measures have buried all remaining hopes of Turkey joining the EU. Relations between Germany and Turkey, in particular, are at an all-time low after Erdogan and Merkel exchanged harsh accusations over the past year. This rift in relations with Europe paralleled the crisis in Turkish-US relations. 

Policies on Iran and Turkey, the Qatar crisis and Jerusalem have diverged significantly on either side of the Atlantic in recent months.

Fadi Esber

In recent days, however, European and American approaches to Turkey suddenly diverged. While Erdogan was attacking Trump for his support for the Iran protests and continued American commitment to the Kurds, France and Germany took steps towards detente with Turkey. Hosting Erdogan in Paris last week, Macron called for a Turkish-European partnership in order to transcend the impasse over Turkey’s quest to join the EU. The main goal, the French president asserted, is to keep Turkey “anchored” in Europe. Parallel to the summit in Paris, German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel hosted his Turkish counterpart and vowed to improve ties between the two countries. This recent detente with Europe, added to his rapprochement with Russia, only strengthens Erdogan’s hand vis-a-vis Trump, as he continues to defy US policy in the Middle East. 

In both major diplomatic crises that rocked the Middle East in 2017 —Qatar and Trump’s decision on Jerusalem — European and American positions were markedly divergent. While his secretary of state Rex Tillerson was more diplomatic, Trump took a harsh stance on Qatar. Germany, on the other hand, announced that Arab demands from Qatar were “very provocative.” The German stance on the Qatar crisis was alarmist, warning about the possibility of conflict in the region, without actually contributing to any diplomatic solutions. Macron also tried to play a role in crisis diplomacy, but that did not prevent him from flying to Doha and signing $14 billion worth of deals, including the sale of advanced fighter jets to Qatar. 

When the US recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and decided to move the US embassy there, sparking a major crisis, Europe vehemently opposed the American decision. France, Germany and Britain all criticized Trump, and almost all European countries voted in favor of condemning the US decision at the United Nations General Assembly. Europe, nonetheless, has not offered any viable diplomatic alternatives for the stumbling peace process in the Middle East.

For years, Europe and the US were partners in the anti-Daesh coalition. But, as the fight against the terrorist group in both Iraq and Syria comes to an end, it is unlikely American and European strategies for the post-Daesh era in Iraq will be harmonious, given the aforementioned disagreements over almost all issues related to the Middle East. On the other hand, Europe is almost completely absent from the diplomatic activity aimed at resolving the Syrian conflict. It is doubtful whether recent openings with Iran and Turkey could guarantee Europe a seat at the table, considering the ambivalent status of Europe’s relations with Russia, the dominant player in the Syrian case. The most important fact to keep in mind about both Iraq and Syria is that, unlike the US, Russia, Iran and Turkey, European powers do not have enough leverage on the ground to construct a policy independent of other powers.

• Fadi Esber is a founding associate at the Damascus History Foundation, a private organization promoting research on themes related to the history of Damascus from the 19th century to the present. He is pursuing a doctorate in history at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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