A fragile European response to a complicated war
24 October 2016 /
The Syrian civil war drags on into its fifth year, and Europe still hasn’t found a position which will help to bring a resolution of the conflict. The EU is in a vulnerable situation – both internally and externally. It has yet found a coherent response to deal with terrorist attacks and the continuing influx of the refugees.
The lack of a common European foreign policy vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis is having a profound damaging impact on the EU’s role in the world. The Middle-Eastern country has become the main talking point between international powers, and several actors are directly interfering in it. Those who have influence there, can extend it elsewhere to further their own interests. In one hand it can be state actors like Russia, with its renewed aggressiveness in Europe, on the other hand, it can be non-state actors like the Islamic State which now has a permanent presence in 6 countries.
For the European Union and its member states, the Syrian war has brought to surface the differences and weaknesses vis-á-vis a common foreign policy. This has resulted in the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Frederica Mogherini and her predecessor Catherine Ashton putting out statements and declarations which followed the US line “Assad must go”, but not backing them up. This is a problem Europe has had for decades with other countries within the European Neigbourhood Policy.
According to the Syrian government behind-the-scenes information exchanges are regularly taking place between them and European security services, especially since the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Germany and Brussels.
The High Representatives put themselves in a corner, only resorting in condemning and sanctioning the Syrian regime without any real influence on the ground, while other European figures have decided to take another course. Some members of the European Parliament visit Damascus occasionally, and other leaders like the Spanish foreign minister call for dialogue with President Bashar al-Assad. This makes the lack of cohesion between the EU and its member states clearly visible. At the same time, according to the Syrian government behind-the-scenes information exchanges are regularly taking place between them and European security services, especially since the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Germany and Brussels.
When the Syrian demonstrations started in 2011, key figures like Francois Hollande, David Cameron were quick to jump on the bandwagon. First they condemned the regime’s use of violence, then they called for the Syrian President to step down, and later they campaigned for military intervention in the aftermath of the Ghouta chemical attack in 2013. Although the EU was historically one of Syria’s biggest trading partner before the turmoil, there were only two major agreements signed between them. One Cooperation Agreement in 1977 and later the EU-Syria Association in 2009 was successfully negotiated between the two entities. Furthermore there was an EU delegation in Damascus until late March of 2012, when they left because of the heavy fighting reaching the capital itself. Even though most embassies suspended their operations and moved to Lebanon, some remained, like the Romanian and Czech, two former communist states, still holding deep ties with the Syrian government.
During the beginning of the Arab Spring, kings and dictators were loosing their seats one after the other in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, and the West assumed that the regime of Bashar al-Assad was just another hostile Middle-Eastern state which would soon collapse. Even with Bashar remaining in power, the condemning words from Ms Ashton and Mr Barroso were left with no concrete action, and lost much of their legitimacy not only in Syria but in the wider arena as well, because of the internationalization of this conflict.
As the war was picking up pace during the spring of 2012 many European leaders miscalculated the importance of the country’s history and religious diversity. During the French mandate in the 1920s, France played a key role in lifting up the Alawites (the minority sect Bashar al-Assad belongs to) from poverty. Even with the prior extensive knowledge of its former colony, the French government campaigned for a military intervention in 2013, but was finally left hanging by its western counterparts who thought it was wiser not to interviene. In regards to the Syrian civil war there seems to be a lack of leadership in Europe, whether institutional or national. There is a blame-game going on, and fingers are pointed at each other for the problems with the refugees, terrorist attacks, and for the continuation of the Syrian war.
The Council of the European Union has resorted in sanctioning the Syrian government. However, it did not have any real pressure on the small circle of Syrian leaders, instead it has put the population into an even bigger misery. Under blockade, and inflation soaring along with the economy collapsing, it’s the regular Syrians who pay the biggest price and continue to blame the west for the current situation. On the other side, the EU gives aid, especially to the opposition parties operating inside and outside of the country. By working closely with the United Nations, refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon are funded, and one of the key polices of the European Council is to help these countries to remain stable. The last two are at great risk because of the war across their borders and the refugees it brings to them.
Support to the opposition
The EU now also funds Syrian radio stations broadcasting in opposition held territory. Moreover, several studies have gained support to further the opposition agenda, like the series of “Cities in Revolution” by a website called Syria Untold. One of its pieces describes how the city of Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria has gradually fallen from regime control, and relates the fall of the town to demonstrations taking place elsewhere. The study argues that “on July 22, 2011, more than a million protestors flocked to Hama” (Darwish, 2016). The town itself has 845,000 inhabitants according to a 2009 census, so the number of demonstrators is a tremendous exaggeration. Logistically a town of that size can’t bear anywhere near that many people on the street, and neither can many European capitals. If a popular demonstration anywhere near that magnitude would have taken place in Syria the regime would have fallen, as there is no army capable of controlling a mass manifestation like that. Today Hama is firmly under Syrian Army control. The legitimacy of the rest of the piece is put in question with several arguments about “hundreds of thousands” of demonstrators in Deir ez-Zor, a city of 211.000 according to a 2004 census. The EU flag is shown on the website (http://cities.syriauntold.com/), and it’s also stated in the study that it was financed by the European Union and written by Syrians. With a policy of funding clearly biased research articles like this, the European Union jeopardizes its role as a credible actor in the Middle-East, and generates more external resentment in the Arab world.
With a policy of funding clearly biased research articles like this, the European Union jeopardizes its role as a credible actor in the Middle-East, and generates more external resentment in the Arab world.
Europe’s position in the international arena has become weaker and more fragile since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. The European continent doesn’t have a real voice in the resolution of the conflict, but at least it had a seat at the much anticipated Geneva II peace conference in 2014. At the round-table major world powers had a seat, but also the Vatican City and South Korea. The sole recent peace initiative the EU tried to put together in early 2016 did not materialize, and during the peace negotiations in spring and this September, Europe was completely side-lined. The future of the conflict lies in the hands of the US and Russia, and while the EU struggles with handling the refugee crisis within its border, the war and the suffering continues in its neighbourhood.
Noel Daniel Vig is a EU Studies Master’s student at the Institut d’études Européennes.