Brexit’s Roots in the Middle East

June 30, 2016

Those looking to explain the roots of the Brexit campaign should look beyond distressed economies of Northumberland and Norfolk. They need to look toward Aleppo and Homs as well. The prospect is not as farfetched as it sounds.

The rise of parochial nationalists in Europe and the triumph of the “Leave” vote in Britain seem at least partially a consequence of Middle Eastern disorder. As terrorists strike Paris and Brussels, refugees flood across borders and mass in cities and towns, and the prospects for any return to normalcy in Europe seem remote. With the fraying of global order, Europeans feel an instinct to raise national borders once again.

While it is wrong to say that Europe’s current struggles are all a consequence of U.S. actions, it is hard to argue that U.S. actions and, more importantly, inaction have not strengthened the course on which Europe is now embarking. The U.S. government has made its own decisions about how best to contribute to global order, and Washington sees the Middle Eastern conflicts that loom so large in European minds as a secondary affair. President Obama’s sometime chronicler, Jeffrey Goldberg, judged that the president had concluded “that only a handful of threats in the Middle East conceivably warranted direct U.S. military intervention,” including al-Qaeda, attacks on Israel, and a nuclear-armed Iran.

Syria is not on that list, and the policy the administration has pursued as a result has sometimes seemed clearer about what the United States would not do than what it would do. The U.S. military has carried out discrete actions against discrete targets, but those actions seem mainly to serve a strategy of avoiding undue U.S. military entanglements, not a strategy of shaping the environment in Syria in a direction favorable to U.S. interests.

As part of that strategy, the United States has assembled a coalition of 65 countries to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The coalition is broad but not deep, and its effects pale in comparison to those of the three-country coalition of Syria, Russia, and Iran. Why is this smaller coalition so effective? Because the members of that coalition care profoundly, and most members of the U.S. coalition profoundly do not. The pro-Assad coalition demonstrates its resolve at every turn. The U.S.-led coalition is potentially capable but scattered in its effects.

In the wake of all of this, Europe is aflame. More than 350,000 Syrians applied for asylum in the European Union in 2015, and millions more are displaced in Turkey. Budgets strain under the weight of millions of new arrivals, security services struggle to monitor all of the threats, and ordinary citizens feel that their way of life is under threat. The “Leave” campaign capitalized on these factors. An official campaign poster featured a long line of Middle Eastern migrants with the screaming banner: “Breaking Point: The EU has failed us all. We must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders.” As the news of the Orlando nightclub massacre hit the wires, the leave campaign tweeted a meme stating, “Islamic Extremism is a real threat to our way of life. Act now before we see an Orlando-style atrocity here before too long.” A YouGov poll conducted just before the referendum captured the fear well: among those supporting “Leave,” 39 percent thought doing so would diminish the risk of terrorism in the United Kingdom versus one percent who thought it would increase. Among those supporting “Remain,” the numbers were reversed: three percent thought the threat of terrorism would diminish with Brexit, and 33 percent said it would increase.

With the fear of spillover from Middle Eastern conflicts, within a broader context of anger at labor migration, job insecurity, and hostility to comfortable and far-off elites, is it any wonder that the forces of dis-integration in Europe are rising?

It is true that, despite Europe’s distress, the European Union and the other operative alliances have been unable to conjure a plan to address its drivers. But the United States hasn’t been able to galvanize an effective European response, either. Protected by wide oceans, the United States is playing a lower profile role. It seems to have concluded that Syria’s problems have no solution, and a larger U.S. commitment would drain resources rather than bolster U.S. security.

Yet, as Obama himself acknowledges, what is happening now in Europe is of genuine strategic importance to the United States. Unfortunately, the president too easily disentangles the two sets of crises, ignoring the tendons that connect them. Events in the Middle East are clearly fueling the flames that threaten to engulf the European project. As such, events in the Middle East deserve more American determination.

What might the U.S. government do in Syria and elsewhere in the region to make a difference in Europe?

The most important priority is to demonstrate some measure of resolve. By so clearly advertising the limits of U.S. action, the United States has drawn a clear line that its adversaries could walk right up to. A few carefully designed military and intelligence actions that showed U.S. capabilities to penetrate regime-controlled areas, destroy regime-controlled targets with pinpoint precision, and act on timely intelligence from deep within the Syrian power structure would do several things. They would humiliate the Assad regime and cause his allies rethink their options. Equally importantly, such actions would serve to demonstrate that any U.S. inaction is not because of a lack of will, capability, or intent, and Assad and his allies would have to worry about how different decisions might produce different kinds of U.S. efforts.

Under that circumstance, the United States would have enhanced leverage in its negotiations over the future of Syria. It is hard to find any instance of the Obama administration enhancing its leverage before Syria negotiations, fitting a broader U.S. pattern of seeking to prepare for negotiations by  creating a climate conducive to an agreement. The Russians, Iranians, and Syrians consistently show a different pattern — to act aggressively before a negotiation and use the newfound aggression as a bargaining chip in the negotiations.

Every statesman has a clear understanding of how actions outside the negotiating room can prepare what happens around the table. Generals who served in Iraq and Afghanistan developed a visible appreciation for the diplomats who served with them, understanding that the generals’ efforts were far more effective when tightly coordinated with the diplomats than when in isolation. The military effort that is needed is not merely one that “checks the box,” but one that is timed and integrated with a diplomatic effort to reshape the conflict. Such an effort would be visible to Syrians, Russians, and Iranians. An added benefit is that it would create a horizon for European populations, who fear that no resolution to their problems is in sight.

It is not up to the United States to solve the problems of the Middle East, nor to solve Europe’s problems for Europeans. At the same time, a perception of U.S. indifference affects allied governments and their populations. That perception is widespread now, in Europe, the Middle East, and beyond. When populations feel strategically adrift, they take matters into their own hands. They sometimes act in ways that seem unpredictable in Washington, and sometimes in ways that are undesirable and have a profound strategic impact on the United States.

Europe’s journey is now underway. A new Syria policy will not abort it, although over time it could affect it. What is happening now in Europe is only one consequence of what many perceive to be a new U.S. approach to global affairs. It is unlikely to be the last.


Jon B. Alterman is Senior Vice President, Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Image: Mstyslav Chernov, CC