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Europe and the Syrian Question

March 4, 2015 at 11:37 am

Geography, in its fundamental nature, points out to us that European security is often linked to the fate of the Middle East – and in particular of Syrian and the surrounding Levant. In this sense, geography is not reduced to the lay of the land; on the contrary, it means much more than the simple arrangement of earth, sea and sky. Geography here is connected to human social interaction, to anthropology and the mutual exchange of culture, trade, development and global integration.

All the above makes geography an essential factor when determining international affairs and when approaching matters of national security, which can affect nations and their peoples. These factors have certainly been relevant when considering Europe’s relationship to Syria both today and in the past. Syria has always occupied a very significant geographical position when it comes to European strategy and geopolitical influence in the region.

After the First World War, and the end of four centuries of Ottoman rule in the Levant, Greater Syria represented the centre of European influence in the Middle East. After Greater Syria was divided into four Levantine mandates – under Sykes-Picot – Syria and Lebanon were placed under French rule.

French rule in Syria lasted nearly three decades from 1918 to 1946. The Syrians gained their independence through many sacrifices, which took the form of three separate revolutions (the revolution of Sheikh Saleh Ali, which took place in Tartous and Latakia; the revolution led by Sheikh Ibrahim Hanano in the north; and the Greater Syrian Revolution of 1925 under the leadership of Sultan Pasha Al-Atrash). Around one year before independence, the Syrian people faced their biggest confrontation with French Colonial forces following the massacre of parliament on 29 May 1945. The popular movement that was launched in 1945 is said to be the root of the effort that gave Syrians the opportunity to gain independence on 17 April 1946.

Between the occupation of Arwad Island in 1918 and the Syrian struggle for independence, there is a heavy track record of political and security interactions between Europe and Syria that are not necessarily limited to economic and cultural interactions between Syria and France. Moreover, interactions between Europe and Syria are not a thing of the past but part of France’s greater influence over Syria’s modern development. The Euro-Syrian relationship goes back to the beginning of time and Syria, in particular, has long represented the face of the East for many European countries. Out of all the Middle Eastern and North African countries, Syria (including Greater Syria) is perhaps the one that has been written about the most in European historical and cultural forums.

When it comes to the current level of the Syrian state, one could say that it grew into a solid political force in the eastern Mediterranean after the revolution of 1963, when it adopted a cross-country ideological project and even formed alliances with the former Soviet Union. At this juncture, two major developments occurred in Syrian and European security. The first was the increased initiatives with Eastern European countries, especially the Soviet Union; while the second was a collision with Western European and NATO interests, the formation of which Damascus considered to be a suspicious and anti-Arab move.

In this critical moment in history, Syria did not lose its geo-political significance – quite the contrary; it gained more importance and became a sensitive point of negotiation in European affairs with the wider Arab region. In fact, Syria played a critical role in the balance of power in the region’s negotiations with NATO.

Syria continued this metamorphosis after a series of reforms led by former President Hafez Al-Assad took place in in the 1970s. Hafez Al-Assad’s changes focused primarily on Syria’s role and location within the region and its relationship to other Arab nations.

Syria, which at this point had been constantly changing since 1946, went on to define its position in the Arab world at large. Hafez Al-Assad’s view was that Syria’s position would be further defined by its pan-Arab affiliation and that Arab unity needed to be at the forefront of its priorities as a country. These efforts are eventually what led to a the creation of the United Arab Republic, in which Gamal Abdel Nasser and Hafez Al-Assad agreed to form a union between Syria and Egypt and encouraged the two countries to participate in the 6 October war in 1973.

In the mid-1980s Europe imposed sanctions on Syria, and it was at this point that Syria became more of an important factor in European security. Contrary to what many may think, the 6 October war actually made Syria more central to European relations and accounts.

Nearly a decade later, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon put Syrian relations with the West to a new test, as the crisis in Syrian-European relations occurred sometime between the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the Gulf War II in 1990-1991. The Europeans also imposed economic sanctions on Syria in the mid 1980s.

In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and with this action Europe and the West began to re-evaluate their relations with Syria, which placed the country at a critical historical and diplomatic crossroads. At the time, Hafez Al-Assad strongly believed that events in the region would work in Israel’s favour regardless of whether or not the Gulf War took place, and he felt that regional powers needed to reconsider their positions and their actions accordingly.

Assad’s vision was the impetus that led to Syria’s participation in the Gulf War, as the objective remained to reduce and prevent great Arab losses as well as to prevent Israel from making strategic gains in the wake of the war. Yet, the consequences of these involvements eventually led to second Gulf War and the end of Syrian and Western engagement in Lebanon.

Similar to what happened following the October war, the West had no choice but to accept and consider Syria’s newfound regional centrality and influence. As the author Patrick Seale has said, no one in the West even thought to overlook Hafez Al-Assad. The status quo did not change even after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

In 2011, a crisis exploded in Syria, which put Europe in an unenviable position. Researchers realised pretty early on that a compromise in Syrian security and stability would go on to directly affect Europe’s position. European governments knew that it would be a fantasy to think that they could make a distinction between the Eastern and Western shores of the Mediterranean; a fact that was made abundantly clear as the status quo changed in a country as pivotal as Syria.

British researchers and their counterparts in the European Mediterranean made this conclusion more than three years ago, so now the question that begs an answer is: what are today’s researchers saying? At the present time, everyone is quite aware that the collapse of a Syrian state, if it happens, will open the gates of hell on the region and the entire world and send sparks in every direction.

Many Europeans researchers in the field previously wrote that prolonging the conflict in Syria will create a major refugee crisis in the pan-Mediterranean region and that Europe will not be able to contain its repercussions in any form. This is exactly what has happened today.

Experts also warned about the emergence of non-governmental and unregulated armed groups who would tap into the Syrian weapon arsenal, especially the country’s missile reserve, which is among the most significant and sophisticated arsenals of its kind in the region. In truth, many American researchers preceded their counterparts in Europe – including Britain – in pointing to the dangers of armed militias infiltrating the Syrian state’s missile capabilities.

Today, there are a large number of American studies regarding Syria’s missile capabilities, the bulk of which are issued by prestigious research institutions focusing on the conflict. In comparison, there are also many studies that have been conducted and produced by Israeli centres who have been paying particular attention to the possibly of a conflict such as this since the 1990s. Moreover, many researchers have warned of the exchange of fighters and combatants between Europe and the Syrian state, and it is worth noting that these speculations have not risen from thin air but have been based on the reality that has emerged since the conflict in Afghanistan. Many experts say that Europe will soon have to swallow the knife of the Syrian conflict, if it has not done so already.

The bottom line is that today, European officials cannot do much more than to take into consideration all the warnings over the last three years and to begin to consider a new type of European policy that would serve the interests of the people. Because what we are seeing in Syria now is a series of nightmares that haunts the stability of European security. This new approach – if successful – must be based on a realistic approach that takes into consideration everything now taking place in Syria; one that distances itself as much as possible from ideological lust and crystallised stereotypes. Every European official must realise that their security and the security of their people cannot be protected without achieving a sense of security in Aleppo and Damascus.

The clear path to achieving this outcome is to encourage Syrian internal dialogue and to support local reconciliation, which must be accommodated day after day. One must emphasise that the rationale of this approach to solving the conflict must be calculated and rational, as well as faithful and beneficial to the legacy of Syrian civilisation at large. Europe must approach this endeavour with the same passion as thinkers such as John Locke, David Hume, Rousseau, Descartes, Max Weber and Hannah Arendt.

European governments and their officials must embody the principles that have long been taught by European philosophies, and we all must realise that finding a political settlement for the Syrian crisis is not based solely on a moral imperative but that it is also one of the necessities of European security itself. In other words, Syria’s return to its earlier geopolitical stability represents and serves the interests of European stability itself.

Translated from Al, 28 February, 2015

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.