It should not surprise anyone that the USA is withdrawing from Afghanistan soon after Osama bin Laden has been killed. Combined with the pullout from Iraq and the shaky political situation in other Middle Eastern countries, the European Union is on its way to face the greatest security threat of its existence.
US President Barack Obama has announced recently that he is pulling out ten thousand troops from Afghanistan and another twenty-three thousand next year with the rest staying for a few more years at most. In other words, the Americans consider this battlefront as one that they can soon leave in the “capable” hands of the Afghan national security forces. It is a no brainer, that Afghanistan is going to be a nest of terrorists and ravaged by armed struggle for many years to come, but no NATO country can maintain its participation for much longer. There is not enough money and no will to keep this commitment.
Iraq is a much more serious case since it lies between Iran and Syria, the main players of the Iranian axis, and Hezbollah, which is “just” a junior member of the franchise. At least this was true until the recent crisis of the Assad regime. Anyhow, it is very unlikely that the fragmented Iraqi political elite could hold its stance against the Iranians and their allies without the presence of the coalition forces led by the USA. Power-vacuums cannot exist for long and Iran has many advantages in Iraq. One is the Shiite population, which amounts up to 65% of the total population, the second is the favorable geographical location and the third is the sheer size of Iraq. The third is important because, for example, Saudi Arabia could not throw a few thousand soldiers across the border as it did to save their allies in Bahrain, only a few months ago, since it would require a much larger force to “pacify” Iraq.
After a US pullout from Iraq there is only one thing that can seriously hurt any Iranian ambition for an “empire” stretching from the Eastern Mediterranean to the heart of Central Asia and that is the fall of the Assad regime. A few months ago, Syria was considered one of the most stable countries in the region, but now it seems that they are on the doorstep of a new civil war. Until now, there have been 1400 deaths and the Syrian army is not holding itself back. There are reports that Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is aiding President Assad, their closest ally in an otherwise hostile world. The greatest threat is that Assad and his accomplices can ignite everything around them. Hezbollah is already talking about opening a new front in Northern Israel and Turkey is very agitated about the possibility of an overspill effect of the conflict into its territory as Syrian troops are marching next to its borders.
We could say that the American withdrawal is a good thing, they can beef up their capabilities to fight wars elsewhere and it is true that today 100.000 US soldiers and a serious amount of military hardware are locked at Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Obama has made it clear that the United States has to focus inwards and cut down on public debt, put the country back on a sustainable track. I do not believe that we are facing another era of an isolationist America, but their commitment to a secure world order will be reduced in real terms, leaving gaps behind them in the security establishment of all regions.
As I wrote before, the European Union will soon face the consequences of the reduced American presence in the Middle East. The main question is whether we can fill in the void, or other actors with unfriendly or even hostile intents will take the initiative instead. It is possible to counter these negative forces by aiding domestic groups in Middle Eastern countries, using proxies and by these methods, the military aspect can be minimized (but not eliminated) in the short run. There are signs pointing in the direction of a revised European Neighborhood Policy, as many European politicians (for example, British PM David Cameron) have acknowledged the failure of our previous efforts to reshape the Middle East. These positive trends are overshadowed by the internal problems of the euro-zone, but if both the USA and the EU are turning inwards at the same time, other actors will make their move. By the time we would solve our domestic questions, our maneuvering space would be seriously reduced, especially in such a turbulent region as the Middle East.
At least three major features shape any political entity’s power in international relations: resources, fears and ambitions. Today we see that the European Union has immense resources, like a grand economy, population, territory etc. but it lacks the ambition to act as a major power. At least, no member state wants to sacrifice much of its own sovereignty for a greater international role of the EU. Today it seems that the only way the European integration could be pushed forward is by understanding the risks of not being a superpower. The Middle Eastern security situation after the US pullout could provide such an example and alert European decision makers. However, the more time the European Union wastes by inaction, the greater price we are going to pay in the long run.