Vladimir Chukov, professor in Arab studies:
Concerns about World War III are exaggerated
The EU lacks common army and security concept but it remains a big economic factor in the Middle East and will participate in the process of stabilisation
12 April, 2018
Close-up: Vladimir Chukov was born in Athens in 1960. He graduated from the French Language School in Sofia and later attended a French college in Tunisia. He also earned a degree from the Damascus University in Syria. Vladimir Chukov, who has a PhD in economics, is a member of the European Association for Middle Eastern Studies in Mainz, Germany and other international organisations in the US, Belgium and the UK. Chukov has authored nine monographs and over 100 scientific papers. He has been published in the US, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and others. Currently, he is the head of the Department for European Studies and International Relations at “Angel Kanchev” University of Rousse, Bulgaria. - Prof. Chukov, tensions in Syria are escalating by the hour, feeding people's fears of an armed conflict between Russia and the US. Is such a development possible and what is happening on the ground? - Tensions escalated after reports of an alleged chemical attack in Syria. I say “alleged” because there is no international body to confirm its existence or source. Unfortunately, debates in the UN Security Council and the three resolutions for the institutionalisation of such an agency fell through. Military actions were left as the most probable response by the US and its allies to the supposed chemical attack that is said to have been perpetrated by Bashar al-Assad's regime. But I would like to stress that concerns about World War III, a conflict between the US and Russia, are strongly exaggerated. In all the seven years of the civil war in Syria, we have seen perfect coordination between the military leadership of the US and Russia. There has not been a single incident involving their air forces, and this will continue to be true. Potential US military strikes now will probably have broader range than the ones in April of last year, but they will still be relayed to, or even coordinated with, Russia. - What is the role of Israel as an important regional player in this situation? - The probability of a new war between Israel and Hezbollah is much higher now. This is the second layer of the conflict surrounding Syria. It is a clash between a country and an organisation. The possibility of an Israel-Iran war cannot be ruled out as well. The date 10 February was about confrontation strictly between Iran and Israel, but now the clash may spread over more targets and a longer period of time. The likelihood of this is much greater than that of a conflict between Russia and the US.- Why is the EU unable to find its place as one of the major players in solving the Middle East conflicts, whereas Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia have their voices heard in addition to those of Russia and the US? - First and foremost, the EU has no relevant role because it lacks common army or security concept. Syria is the most dynamic, most intense conflict area, and whoever is directly involved essentially has the initiative. The international coalition created by the US in 2015 encompasses military units from different European countries. But it must be stressed that Europe remains the big economic factor in that region. In the beginning of this year, following several Russian wins in Syria, the conversation started centring on the restoration of the country, devastated by conflict. The EU stated clearly its intention to participate in the process but only after political reforms that are to be negotiated in Geneva. This has not happened yet, but the restoration cannot possibly take place without the EU's help. And it is part of the stabilisation. Similarly, the US is the main moderator regarding the Palestine issue, but the EU provides over 50% of the Palestinian economy's money. Now the EU rightfully says - we pay and so we must be part of the talks between Israel and Palestine. Consensus seems unlikely in Syria, and so Europe stays back for now. Unfortunately, Europe is affected by insecurity, terrorism, and the millions of Syrian refugees who are reshaping the political landscape of the continent. This should make us Europeans be more active on the international stage. - Did we act prematurely by pronouncing the death of Islamic State and the global threat it poses? - That is right. Last year, the Prime Minister of Iraq Haider Abadi announced the end of Islamic State (IS), followed by Russian President Vladimir Putin's assertion that the organisation has been defeated. As it turns out, that was not the case. And if in February the data showed that IS controlled only 2% of Syria's territory, local military topographers estimated the number at 8%. So the territory under its control is growing, and we are seeing a resurrection. Suicide bomb attacks in Iraq and Syria are a daily occurrence. A wide swath of land along the Syria-Iraq border is controlled by IS. Furthermore, there is a sort of multiplication of jihadist projects, which creates an even bigger threat to the regional and international security. The Al-Nusra Front controls a whole province in Syria as well as enclaves near the frontier with Israel and in Southern Syria. The Turkestan Islamic Party is made up of Islamic Uyghurs. For a month now, there has also been serious talk of another group, Guardians of Religion, which is a splinter group of Al-Nusra still loyal to Al-Qaeda. Syria is a combustible mixture of jihadist projects. - We are faced with the real possibility that the millions of refugees currently on Turkish territory will head for the European continent at some point. Did the EU-Turkey Summit that took place in Varna in March provide some assurance that this will not happen? - Turkey owes gratitude to Bulgaria and its Prime Minister Boyko Borisov for being invited to such a meeting, because President Recep Erdogan would not have been welcomed in Brussels. As you know, the European Parliament voted to suspend Turkey's accession talks, there is a strong anti-Turkish sentiment. The most important thing is that the summit was held, and that the communication channels remain open. Turkey was the seeking party, these €3bn are not a problem for the EU. The Turkish diplomats have been trying to portray the situation as though Europe is the one who needs Turkey, not the other way round. Turkey has 1m Iraqi refugees and 3m Syrian. It uses them very deftly as a weapon. It steers the flow but clearly knows that the refugees bring in their wake right-wing parties with anti-Turkish sentiment. At the same time, it must be stressed that Turkey has long been present in the European Economic Area. It is a member of the Customs Union since 1996. Huge investments were poured into Turkey. Why is, all of a sudden, Erdogan talking like a regional leader, where is this self-confidence coming from? The answer is a strong economy that was fuelled by the Europeans. The EU-Turkey trade volume is $130bn. Trade with Turkey's second-largest partner China is several times smaller. Without Europe, Turkey is doomed. By the way, Ankara knows what is in its interest and is in favour of expanding the Customs Union with the bloc. At present, Turkey is a recipient of outsourcing investments, and the products made thanks to them go to the European market. What the country wants is to include agriculture and, most importantly, services in this scope. Polish plumbers will be nothing compared to the Turkish ones if the latter flood the EU labour market. - Does Turkey's operation in Syria under the name Olive Branch, which may be expanded to Iraq too, pose a threat to European security? - Operation Olive Branch was among the topics that illuminated differences between the two parties at the EU-Turkey Summit in Varna held on 26 March. This was made evident by Erdogan's statement and the official press conference. Europe and Turkey obviously have different definitions of terrorism. Turkey had earlier offered 11 arguments as to why the operation in Syria is legal and in line with international law. Ankara cited four resolutions of the UN Security Council, as well as Article 45 of the Charter of the UN, which stipulates that every country has the right to protect itself against terrorist threats to its integrity. The key to normalising the Europe-Turkey relations, even regarding a rather pragmatic issue like visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens, is in bridging the two sides' definitions of terrorism. Europe has its view, which is based on other interpretations laid out in international and European law. - Where exactly is the disconnect on this matter? - When Turkey describes the terrorist organisations, it lists five names, only two of which match the European position - Daesh (Islamic State) and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Turkey also has People's Protection Units (YPG), Democratic Union Party (PYD), and FETO of Fethullah Gulen. In the eyes of Europe, the last three are not terrorist organisations, and yet Ankara insists that it is protecting us from them. Moreover, Turkey wants Europe to curb the operations of PYD on its territory with the argument that the organisation is a supporter of PKK. The same applies to YPG. But there are large Kurdish communities in Western Europe and by identifying them as terrorists, the EU sets itself up for war and bloodshed. Erdogan claims that his country does not war with the Kurds, only with the terrorist groups. The European Parliament, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and France's President Emmanuel Macron were clear that operation Olive Branch is an intervention in a foreign country. This operation resulted in migration en masse. Some 200,000 people were forced to leave Afrin. This caused an outcry among the large Kurdish diaspora in Europe. - Does the EU have a good option in handling the refugee wave from Africa? The region seems to be a powder keg. - This is about economic migration, largely caused by the continent's climate. The outlook for that part of the world is bleak. We are not talking about wars or political problems but about Mother Nature making people flee those lands. Europe, with its favourable climate and high living standards, is the main destination for these refugees. The routes Libya-Italy and Libya-Spain will be increasingly active. There already have been incidents with Somali and Nigerian illegal migrants. The flow will strongly politicise European society and reshape the region's political landscape. Unfortunately, we do not have a strategy to respond to what is already brewing. There have been proposals for the creation of refugee camps in the African nations, but I think this idea would be difficult to accomplish. The world is on course to an irreversible polarisation.