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Is Europe Endangered by Its Impotence in Syria?

A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world

By: EBR - Posted: Thursday, October 24, 2019

 “Our public discourse is both ill-informed and compulsive.” The discussion following Turkey’s offensive in northeastern Syria is a perfect illustration.
“Our public discourse is both ill-informed and compulsive.” The discussion following Turkey’s offensive in northeastern Syria is a perfect illustration.

by Judy Dempsey* 

THORSTEN BENNERCO-FOUNDER AND DIRECTOR OF THE GLOBAL PUBLIC POLICY INSTITUTE

Over the past eight years, we Europeans have perfected the ability to ignore the Syrian conflict as best as we can. Only when it hits the front pages consistently do we wake up realizing that the war directly affects Europe’s interests. Europeans then send their political leaders on a frantic quest for fixes.

In the words of my colleague Tobias Schneider: “Our public discourse is both ill-informed and compulsive.” The discussion following Turkey’s offensive in northeastern Syria is a perfect illustration. We tell simplistic stories of “selling out the Kurds” and produce half-baked proposals such as German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s “security zone” that cater mostly to a domestic audience. Germany’s and Europe’s impotence to have a proper discussion on the whole Syrian conflict is staggering.

We could start to change this by asking ourselves questions such as: How can we best help the three million people living in Idlib, the other big region not yet under regime control? Could we work together with Russia on reconstruction across Syria—and if so, under which conditions? How do we engage with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? What lessons do we draw from allowing war crimes such as chemical weapons attacks to be committed as effective tools of war?

Don’t hold your breath for coherent answers from us Europeans.

KRZYSZTOF BLEDOWSKICOUNCIL DIRECTOR AND SENIOR ECONOMIST AT THE MANUFACTURERS ALLIANCE FOR PRODUCTIVITY AND INNOVATION

The decision by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump to pull out of Syria is a serious strategic mistake. Without going into details, Europe will be endangered in several ways as a result.

First, the continent sits at a pivotal intersection of trade, finance, and regional competition for influence in the Middle East. American withdrawal circumscribes Europe’s ability to shape developments in the region. Ancillary collateral costs may also surface.

Second, should the war intensify, fresh waves of refugees could reopen wounds within the EU that barely healed. Uncontrolled numbers of migrants had previously disempowered the Dublin III Regulation, which determines which EU member state is responsible for the examination of an asylum application.

Third, unlike Iran, Russia, or Turkey, the EU does not wish to deploy military assets to make a difference in the conflict. France and the UK are direct belligerents, but only to fight the so-called Islamic State on the territory of Syria. As at times in the past, the absence of America lays bare Europe’s inability to act independently.

The EU does not exercise true foreign policy because it cannot back it up by military force. On the other hand, the resources it does control—economic power—can be deployed poorly by a conflicted European Council. As a result, the likes of China, Russia, or Turkey can wield undue influence in the region and within the EU.

CAROLINE DE GRUYTEREUROPEAN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT FOR NRC HANDELSBLAD

Europe is not endangered by its impotence in Syria. It is, by contrast, endangered by its impotence to welcome refugees—thereby exposing itself to geopolitical blackmail.

What happens in Syria is a tragedy. But I don’t believe Europe can solve it by intervening. Our military might is limited and ineffective, our decisionmaking process is complicated and slow. Against better judgment, Europeans tried to intervene in Libya. The effect was disastrous, both for Libya and for Europe. At least we learned one lesson: not to intervene in Syria.

The Syrian war reminds us daily, however, that we are vulnerable without a better asylum and migration policy. We should let people ask for asylum in the region. We should let those who qualify travel safely by plane—no need for smugglers or leaky boats. We should distribute refugees among EU countries, most of whom are happy to host refugees. We should have a separate system for migrants, formulating our needs and letting people apply for legal visa. Those arriving illegally should be returned immediately.

This is not very difficult. But what we do now is the opposite. We mix refugees with migrants, become paranoid, and shut the door to those most in need. Turkey decides who goes to Europe, not us. This is a humanitarian shame and a huge security risk. One day it may come to haunt us.

MOHANAD HAGE ALIDIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATIONS AND FELLOW AT THE CARNEGIE MIDDLE EAST CENTER

The EU’s impotence in Syria has only amplified the bloc’s vulnerability to external threats.

Since the peaceful 2011 protests were violently repressed by the Syrian regime, leading to a persistent, nationwide conflict, the EU’s approach has consistently avoided any direct involvement, except for limited and insignificant funding and arming of certain opposition groups. This passive role of the EU in Syria turned into vulnerability with the 2015-2016 refugee crisis and the ensuing March 2016 deal with Turkey, which entailed a halt in the flow of refugees to Europe in return for a €6 billion aid package.

Threatened with Turkey “opening the gates” for refugees, the EU stalled before issuing a condemnation of Ankara’s operation against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. But how far will Turkey go in deploying its so-called refugee card against Europe—as Ankara edges closer to Moscow in its Syria policy? Will it pressure the EU to endorse a Russian-backed solution to the Syrian conflict, exonerating the Syrian regime and depriving millions of their demands for a political transition?

Given Ankara’s threats and the current course of events in Syria, the EU might see itself either divided or obliged to support the revival of the repressive order in Syria it sought to oppose in the first place.

BEN HODGESPERSHING CHAIR AT THE CENTER FOR EUROPEAN POLICY ANALYSIS AND PARTNER AT BERLIN GLOBAL ADVISORS

Yes, Europe is endangered by its impotence in Syria. The risks of a significant new wave of refugees and a potential return of the Islamic State, regardless of the causes, are real. The U.S. government has made a mistake in how and when to withdraw from Syria—but the United States alone could not solve the Syrian civil war, and Europe has done precious little to help.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s current operation in northeastern Syria is only a footnote in a bigger situation. He has asked the world for years to create a safe zone to prevent a Kurdish state on his border with Syria. Had the UN—with Western military power and in cooperation with Russia—created such a safe zone in northern Syria, Aleppo would not have happened and the current disaster would not have happened.

The mistake by Trump only exacerbates the original sin that the late U.S. Senator John McCain warned about back in 2011 and 2012: if we don’t put our money, or military, in Syria where our mouth is, we cannot expect to play. Russia has gone in, ready to do what it might take. The same is true with Iran.

It appears that Europe is starting to respond, with the proposals from Germany on October 21. But Europe needs a strategic vision for the region that employs a balanced mix of diplomacy, information, military, and economic power. Only then will Europe be able to effectively address the threats coming from this situation in Syria.

NORA MULLEREXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS AT KORBER-STIFTUNG

The United States abandoned its Kurdish allies, thus paving the way for Turkey’s military operation. In their plight, the Kurds opted for a deal with the devil: an alliance with Assad. Who benefits from Trump’s strategic blunder? The Damascene dictator and his protector in the Kremlin. But also Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose forces will find the mayhem in northern Syria a welcome opportunity to regroup.

For us Europeans, this should be “no time to go wobbly.” But instead of proving our Weltpolitikfahigkeit, our ability to act on the world stage, we set a new record in wobbliness. Yes, Europe has to navigate rough geopolitical waters with an erratic president in the White House and a wayward Turkey testing the limits of NATO cohesion. But this is no excuse for burying one’s head in the sand. It does not take a crystal ball to predict the consequences of this European “ostrich” policy: the trust in Europe’s ability to function as an Ordnungsmacht, a stabilizing power, in its neighborhood will erode further. And so will the Europeans’ clout in the Middle East, a region of strategic importance for Europe’s security.

The yawning gap between Europe’s ambitions and Europe’s actions certainly presents a danger to its interests and could conceivably become a danger to Europeans themselves.

VOLKER PERTHESEXECUTIVE CHAIRMAN AND DIRECTOR OF THE GERMAN INSTITUTE FOR INTERNATIONAL AND SECURITY AFFAIRS

Europe is weakened by its inability to develop an effective, common policy toward its Southern neighborhood.

Regarding Syria, EU member countries have largely followed their individual instincts rather than dealing with the crisis as a matter of common and vital European interest. Still, the EU and its members became the largest donors of humanitarian aid and unequivocally supported the efforts of the UN to reach a negotiated end to the Syrian war.

Regarding the latest Turkish incursion into Syria, EU foreign ministers reacted quickly and reasonably, not least by agreeing to suspend arms exports to Turkey. Current political and media debates, however, seem mainly to be about how to punish Turkey rather than about how Europe could mediate and contribute to de-escalation and, eventually, security and stability in the Turkish-Syrian crisis landscape.

A European approach that reflects realities on the ground would include four elements: a readjustment of the relationship with Damascus; a conditioned contribution—based on rights and protection—to reconstruction; inclusion of so far excluded Kurdish groups into the UN-facilitated political process; and active political engagement with Turkey with efforts to broker a troop-disengagement agreement in Syria’s northeast, including the possibility of a European-led UN disengagement force.

MARC PIERINIVISITING SCHOLAR AT CARNEGIE EUROPE

From the outset of the Syrian war, the EU has been marginalized, essentially for internal reasons.

One reason is that for military operations in Syria within the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, some EU governments have significant military assets to contribute with (France, the UK), others can only contribute marginally (air support from Belgium, Denmark, and Germany, among others), and yet others simply cannot contribute at all.

A second reason is that since the Lisbon Treaty came into force in 2009, the EU’s foreign policy has been led by the larger member states. This has de facto excluded a comprehensive European approach, largely limiting EU actions to the humanitarian domain and, more importantly, depriving the soon-to-be twenty-seven member states from exerting a bigger influence.

This impotence creates a huge paradox: while a witness in diplomatic activities and a subsidiary actor in military activities, the EU is one of the regions most affected by terrorism and refugee waves.

Another major game changer for Europe is the now permanent unpredictability of the Trump White House. The impossibility of maintaining a cohesive line of action between the EU and the United States in the Syrian conflict makes it impossible for the most committed actors on the ground (again, France and the UK) to play a role consistent with their national interest. Let alone that, in the most recent developments, the United States and Turkey, while opposing each other, have both played into the hands of Moscow and Damascus.

SHIMON STEINSENIOR RESEARCH FELLOW AT THE INSTITUTE FOR NATIONAL SECURITY STUDIES AT THE TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY

Impotence, as we know, is an unpleasant situation to be in. It is defined as the inability to take effective action, a state of helplessness. Though the question refers to the current crisis along the Syrian-Turkish border, one should ask the broader question of whether the EU’s impotence in its Southern neighborhood (and beyond) endangers its interests.

It’s not as if the EU’s interests in the region haven’t been clearly defined in endless strategic papers or other policy declarations throughout the years. That being said, the discrepancy between, on the one hand, the EU’s posturing about the implications of the continuing instability in the Southern neighborhood on Europe’s stability and well-being, and, on the other hand, the EU’s unwillingness to do what it takes to implement its interests could not be bigger.

The current crisis and the irrelevance of the EU is only the last example with more most probably to come in the future—unless the Europeans are willing to put their money where their mouth is.

The initiative taken by the German defense minister to establish an international security zone along the Syrian-Turkish border, with an active participation of German and additional European forces, could—if implemented (which is a big “if” given the domestic and international hurdles to overcome)—mark a departure away from posturing and toward actively helping to shape an environment that serves European interests.

JAN TECHAUSENIOR FELLOW AND DIRECTOR OF THE EUROPE PROGRAM AT THE GERMAN MARSHAL FUND OF THE UNITED STATES

Yes. Europe’s powerlessness in the Syrian war and its various side aspects demonstrates to all stakeholders involved that Europe, or the Europeans, are not a force to reckon with in areas of vital interest. It is therefore an invitation to further take advantage of Europe’s open flanks, an opening that Russia and Turkey are only too eager to exploit.

Europe will pay the price for its Syrian impotence in other arenas such as migration and Eastern Europe. It is also dangerous for the EU internally, as powerlessness in the face of risk tends to deepen existing divisions between member states: Some member states will be tempted to go it alone. Others will come to the conclusion that the club is altogether hopeless on foreign and defense policy.

Syria stands in an exemplary way for the conundrum that is EU foreign policy: Europe’s weakness is the result of continuous choices made by its member states. While individual countries’ concerns about the situation increase, the ability and willingness to act collectively decreases. Weakness begets weakness.

It will take enormous leadership skills—and money—on behalf of pro-Europeans to break this vicious circle.

*Nonresident Senior Fellow Carnegie Europe, Editor in chief Strategic Europe

**first published in: carnegieeurope.eu

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