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Europe’s irrelevance in Syria

People inspect the scene of a bomb attack, killing at least 10 civilians, on a marketplace in Tal Abyad, Syria on November 02, 2019 [Bekir Kasım / Anadolu Agency]
People inspect the scene of a bomb attack, killing at least 10 civilians in Syria on 2 November 2019 [Bekir Kasım / Anadolu Agency]

Over the past years, Europeans have been helplessly impotent to openly engage (diplomatically or militarily) in Syria and offer a plan or solution which would pursue the bloc’s security interests. The recent Turkish offensive in north-eastern Syria makes perfect an illustration of the EU’s inability to initiate a clear policy on the Syrian conflict. New tensions may have vast security implications for Europe as well as it triggering a wave of refugees, which, according to the article published by Foreign Policy, “will break Europe’s back.” The EU’s impotence in Syria has only exposed the bloc’s vulnerability to deal with external threats demonstrating its inability to develop an effective, common policy toward its southern neighbourhood.

But this should not come as a surprise. Professor Fulvio Attina from the department of political and social sciences at Italy’s University of Catania explains that Europeans do not perceive themselves as the frontline-leaders of world politics, as this role belongs to the US, Russia or China. According to him, the Europeans anticipate that few – if any – Middle East governments will support their initiative in opposition to initiatives coming from other global powers.

Another reason for Europe’s lethargy according to Zana Kurda, a researcher at Brussel based Institute for European Studies, is that Europe has enjoyed 75 years of peace and stability. For him, the developments over the last three decades such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union put Europe in a sort of “comfort zone” oblivious to the new dangers, including international terrorism.

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In this context, Eugenio Dacrema, an associate research fellow for the MENA Centre at the Italian Institute for International Studies (ISPI), does not expect any real change in the medium term. “The overall calculation is that getting involved would entail even higher costs in terms of resources and political capital without guaranteeing any positive results for European interests,” he told MEMO.

But if their calculations prove wrong, the consequences could be disastrous.

Europeans also lack any real mechanism to coordinate interventions abroad, he added.

While Donald Trump’s decision to pull American forces out of northern Syria comes at the worst possible moment, as Europe has not recovered from previous migrant shock waves. The US’ hastily announced “departure” signals that transatlantic partnership is becoming ever more questionable and therefore the US could not be considered Europe’s security guarantee. But Europeans cannot expect to be perceived as a respectful partner or key player if someone else provides their security and fights their battles. This message Europe has been deliberately overhearing for years.

Although France, for instance, has been the most active promoter of common European security and expressed sincere intention to rationalise EU defence spending, there are only a few EU members who meet NATO’s defence spending target of two per cent of gross domestic product. Hence, it is impossible to even dream of becoming a substantial factor in international relations without transforming relative economic strength into military and strategic power.

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Although there seems to be awareness and willingness among some EU member states and leaders to transform the EU into a geopolitical actor with influence, Kurda points out that the council’s insistence on unanimity has been an obstacle for the EU to achieve such status. According to Attina, the power of the European Council represents one of the “EU’s crucial mistakes” as in this body, each government has veto power! “Twenty-eight veto powers out of twenty-eight members!” he argues, noting that only a tremendous future event will make EU policy-makers aware of the need of making the necessary change.

President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker delivers a speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France on September 12, 2018. ( European Parliament / Pool - Anadolu Agency )

European Commission in session in Strasbourg, France on 12 September 2018 [European Parliament/Anadolu Agency]

Nevertheless, there have been several initiatives attempting to overcome the EU’s ineffective common foreign policy, such as the plan recently presented by the German defence minister to establish an international security zone along the Syrian-Turkish border, with the active participation of German and additional European forces.

According to Kurda, the German defence minister’s proposal would indeed have had positive outcomes for the EU. However, there seem to be disagreements regarding this plan even within the German government itself. Moreover, for the EU to play a meaningful role, he said, it has to act quickly and decisively, before the Turks and the Russians have implemented their plans. In this context, Kurda believes that “Turkey seems to win the race through engaging the UN.”

But the EU is not completely deprived of influence in the Middle East. In fact, the EU’s economic leverage in the region, especially among the Southern Mediterranean countries is still unmatched, explained Dacrema. He thinks that “as far as the EU leaderships feel that this leverage is sufficient to guarantee at least a modicum of leverage, the situation is not going to change significantly.”

This is also true in the case of Turkey. The EU has strong economic leverage to pressure Erdogan, as the European market is by a far the most important for Turkey, in comparison to the Russian, Chinese or the US; Ankara exports almost half of its products to Europe.

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But it is debatable how far Europe will go in exercising this leverage. When it comes to Syria, the EU has been a key payer but not a key player. Its inability to act and come up with a unified decisive policy towards Syria has condemned Europe to play the role of the spectator even when its security interests are at stake.

There has also been much debate lately about the necessity of facing the reality on the ground by readjusting the relationship with Damascus and Moscow and taking part in the post-war reconstruction of Syria. Many believe that the EU should offer a conditioned contribution which will include the inclusion of so far excluded factors – such as Kurdish groups – into the UN-facilitated political process.

According to Kurda, the more the EU is engaged diplomatically, the more it will be able to project influence in the post-conflict Syria. Although we may see more steps toward political normalisation with Damascus, Dacrema does not think that there will be any major contribution to Syria’s reconstruction if things stay as they are. According to him, those governments and political forces in Europe that are keener to normalise relations with Assad are also those which favour Trump. But they also oppose any major resource spending abroad, especially in the Middle East. On the other side, those that would be keener to contribute to the reconstruction do not really see any interest in doing so.

“The only reason we may see a single EU member make major economic concessions to [Syrian President Bashar] Assad in the future would be to get political influence in Syria and in the Levant at the detriment of other European competitors,” Dacrema added.  However, Europe may be too late as Syria is an already a crowded market for influence, with Russia, Iran, Turkey and even China already playing a role in Damascus.

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

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