Syria is our business too: why Europe must take the lead on efforts to end the civil war

Simply waiting until the fight is over looks like a realpolitik option, but it is a recipe to push Syria only further into disaster. The stalemate can last for years. Europe must act now – to prevent a humanitarian tragedy and to protect its vital interests.

Ulrich Speck
29 March 2013
A call to end the Syrian war during a demonstration in Paris. Demotx/Julie Franchet. All rights reserved.

A call to end the Syrian war during a demonstration in Paris. Demotix/Julie Franchet. All rights reserved.

The Bosnian civil war lasted more than three years until in 1995 an American-led coalition of the willing ended the mass killing. Another NATO intervention ended the Kosovo war in 1999. In both cases, Russia had blocked attempts to reach a diplomatic solution, forcing the US and Europe to act without the blessing of the UN Security Council.

The civil war in Syria is now entering its third year, with at least 70.000 dead and no end in sight. Again, a power struggle between hostile groups is devastating a country that once belonged to the Ottoman empire. Again, the big powers are split, with Russia backing one side and the US and Europe very reluctantly supporting the other. 

Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt recently said that the Bosnian war could have ended much earlier if international actors had found common ground. “So we must not repeat that mistake”, he said, with regard to Syria. “It is only by getting the international community together that we have the possibility of a political solution.”

And yet today it looks as if the lessons from the Balkan wars have been forgotten. While Syria burns, the EU is mainly watching from the sidelines; limiting itself to sanctions, to calls to end the violence and to aid some of the refugees in neighbouring countries. The country itself is being destroyed, and neighbouring countries are increasingly destabilized, especially fragile Lebanon. Everything those who argue against intervention said an intervention would lead to is already happening: breakdown of the state, mass killing of civilians, radicalisation, destabilisation of the region.

Paris and London are pushing for arming Syrian rebels, but there are not many who want to follow them on that risky course. Washington is providing some training to the rebels. It is difficult for the west to identify forces who could become constructive partners in a post-Assad Syria. And just sending in weapons without being able to control their use can backfire, making things worse, especially if one considers Syria is already attracting jihadist elements from other countries.

It was the US that had finally taken the lead in the Balkans in the 1990s. But today, US leadership on Syria appears unlikely. After the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences, Obama’s America wants to scale back its international engagement; it doesn’t want to be responsible any more for keeping the regional order in the Middle East - a role it had inherited after the Second World war from Britain and France. Washington is providing some support and is showing preferences - but on Syria it is not even leading from behind, at best supporting from behind.

Which puts the Europeans in the driver seat. Unlike the US which is geographically far from the Middle East, and is rapidly becoming less dependent on Middle East energy, Europe is deeply interconnected with the Middle East on every level.

Letting Syria further break down into a zone of war and violence is very risky. The price of non-action is considerable. Syria is a direct neighbour to Turkey, a NATO ally and candidate for EU membership. The Eastern Mediterranean is of major European interest in many regards, energy being one of them. Europe needs stable, well-governed countries in its neighbourhood in order to be safe itself and be able to prosper. Civil wars breed violence and spill over borders. They interrupt economic production and exchange. People flee across borders in search of a safe and decent life. 

Simply waiting until the fight is over looks like a realpolitik option, but it is a recipe to push the country only further into disaster. The stalemate can last for years. As it looks now, neither side can win, even with support given from outside players, but neither side can lose either. The longer the fight continues, the harder it will be for the country to heal wounds and recover afterwards. A break-up of Syria becomes increasingly likely, in a region where borders were drawn up by British and French imperialists during the First World War. The entire regional architecture might be put into question, thereby destabilizing Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq as well as Turkey. What looms is the dissolution of the Middle East as we know it.

Europeans cannot afford the luxury of being disunited on Syria, with all these interests at stake. The main European powers, France, Britain and Germany must urgently develop a common approach, agree on a common strategy. Disunity does not only lead to inaction, it also invites outsiders to take over.

Paris, London and Berlin must start a major diplomatic initiative, in coordination with Washington. The main goal would be to bring Moscow on board for a political solution in Syria - a transition of power establishing a transitional government in Syria, made of moderates from both sides. A Syria conference with all mayor international and regional players plus the Arab League, the UN and the EU could spell out the concrete terms.

The key to every peaceful solution in Syria is to be found in the Kremlin. Europeans need to push hard to convince Putin that Assad’s case is lost and that it’s time to look ahead to Russian interests in a post-Assad Syria. It must be communicated to Moscow that by helping to end the civil war Russia has a chance of keeping a close relationship with the country. And Europeans must develop a credible plan for keeping the peace in a post-conflict Syria. Besides carrots, Europeans also need a stick, which would be the threat to considerably step up support for rebels. German chancellor Angela Merkel would be well positioned to deliver these messages to Putin.

What is at stake for Europe in Syria is not only stability in the neighbourhood. It is also credibility. EU member states have taken great pains to push the Lisbon treaty through; a main argument was the need to step up the EU’s foreign policy role with the help of a new diplomatic service and a more powerful high representative. Syria is also the first serious test for the EU’s new foreign policy infrastructure. If Paris, London, Brussels and Berlin will not do much more than watch on the sidelines while a key country in their neighbourhood goes up in flames, the whole exercise will turn out to have been distinctly pointless. And others will feel encouraged to step into the vacuum that follows a US retreat.

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