Europe's Syrian quagmire

05 February 2018 /

Just as the Levantine country suffers its second invasion by Turkey in a year and a half, Europe stands idly by, watching the Syrian civil war escalate.

The European Union has on paper a common foreign policy and various Council conclusions have addressed the Syrian issue. But none of them have helped de-escalating the situation on the ground for the past seven years. This role has now taken or given (depending on how you see it), by Russia, Turkey and Iran. The West and the United Nations are sitting on the stands, while intra-Syrian “peace-conferences” are taking place in Sochi. Nevertheless, the Russian-led negotiations are a side-show: Most of the opposition participants are tolerated inside Syrian government territory and the representatives of the only relatively legitimate opposition grouping, the High Negotiation Council (HNC) refused to leave the Sochi airport, demanding that the Syrian Arab Republic’s flags to be taken down.

The real deals are happening behind closed doors, between the three nations named before. Not even the Syrian government has many bargaining chips when those major foreign actors agree. The European Union has even less.

As the second invasion by Turkey on Syria’s sovereign territory unfolds, Federica Mogherini has taken the safe and weak approach. “I’m extremely worried and will discuss this among other things with our Turkish interlocutors”, she said, copying the standard US State Department line when issues are out of their control or care.

What exactly is happening in Syria?

Turkey has, since the start of the civil war, taken up the role as the most powerful supporter of the rebels against Assad and decided in January to invade the country for the second time. The first, in the summer of 2016, was officially against the Islamic State, but in reality, to prevent two separate Kurdish cantons to connect. These two Kurdish territories are heavily influenced by the PKK, which has fought for decades against the Turkish (by now) regime and listed as a terrorist organisation both by the EU and NATO. They have also proven to be the most reliable actor against the Islamic State and has been heavily supported with ammunition, aid, airstrikes and on the ground special forces of the US and European countries, which has worried President Erdogan.

So much, that after the successful invasion against Kurdish interest almost two years ago, the Turkish armed forces decided to try to eliminate one of those Kurdish cantons in north-western Syria called Afrin. The necessity for the operation according the Ankara has been the need to crush terrorist activates (the PKK) along its southern border. Truthfully, the Kurdish forces have started to live up for its designation. Since the start of the military operation, humorously called “Operation Olive Branch”, Kurdish forces have retaliated by shelling towns in Turkey, clearly with no regards civilians, killing numerous. While in simple mathematics, Turkish forces have and will cause the loss of more life in Syria, there shouldn’t be any excuse for either side.

Who is Turkey allying with?

The relatively small casualty number among Turkish forces in Syria during the past three weeks lie in the fact that the offensives are spearheaded by rebel groups, heavily supported by the NATO ally Turkey. Some of these groups are splinters from the wider jihadi insurgency taking place in central Syria, mercenaries who are happy to take a bigger pay check. The NATO member has in fact allied itself with groups, such as Nour al-Din Zinki and Ahrar al-Sham among others, whose leaders have clear connection with al-Qaeda and whom Europe has long abandoned and never supported publicly at least.

Nevertheless, the EU and its member states (with the majority in NATO) has failed to condemn the Turkish strategy of allying partly with radical Islamists against the most reliable anti-IS force in the Kurds. Thus far, it seems that the EU, just as the US, has taken up the highly hypocritical position of abandoning its former anti-IS ally, in favour of the greater good i.e. the cohesiveness of the NATO.

Currently, the EU turns a blind eye to the Turkish atrocities in the region and the devastation its air force brings to Afrin. One can compare the attention the Russian campaign in Aleppo received by European politicians and media to Turkey’s assault on the Kurds in Afrin.

Apart from half-hearted comments of “worry” and “we’re looking at the situation closely” by European leaders, the only specific action taken was the decision by Germany to halt the upgrade of its Leopard tanks which its government has sold to Turkey. Nevertheless, as the deal has already been signed that as well is only a matter of time.

The European Union remains fragmented and its members still aren’t ready to act together and uphold their values. So swiftly abandoning the Kurds in Syria, whose women fighters were hailed as heroes just a few months ago, in favour of President Erdogan’s military invasion of a sovereign country without declaration, is a new low the Syrian civil war has dragged the EU to. No single European country is powerful enough to be a veto-player like the US, Iran, Russia, Turkey and Syria is in the civil war. The member states aren’t acting together. The EU remains a marginal actor and “the biggest donor” towards refugee camps. The same position it has taken up for years. Only now, the causalities are in the hundreds of thousands with no end in sight.

Noel Daniel Vig is a Master student at the ULB Institute for European Studies and co-Editor-in-Chief of Eyes on Europe.

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