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Which Europe in Syria?

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), an NGO based in London, documented that there were 260,758 deaths between March 2011, the date of the beginning of the Syrian civil war, and December 2015. One third of victims were civilians, while the remaining parts were soldiers. On September 2013, after the use of chemical weapons in Damascus, the Syrian crisis became international: the United States and the European Union accused Bashar al-Assad’s government of conducting this illegal operation. However, Russia and Iran defended the Syrian government and accused rebels. In recent years the public opinion has asked which is the role played by the European Union in this conflict, especially after the military intervention in the Syrian territory by the American and Russian forces. This article, firstly, wants to highlight the EU’s identity path to understand which kind of actor Europe is nowadays. Secondly, we will focus the attention on the Union’s position regarding the situation in Syria. Finally, it will be analysed the Federica Mogherini’s statements about the ceasefire agreement between the US and Russia on the Syrian territory.

1.The European evolution.

The current European Union’s identity is the result of a process that began at the end of the II World War. The evolution of the Union status as an international actor has followed five phases each corresponds to a specific historical period. Indeed, following the scheme presented by Joachim Koops in his book «The European Union as integrative power?», the European phases are:

  • Economic
  • Civilian
  • Military
  • Legislative
  • Civilian power with teeth

The concept of creating an economic power was the dominant idea between the late 1950s and the early 1970s As a result, the Treaty of Rome of 25 March 1957 established the European Economic Community (EEC) and set the stages and parameters for a common commercial policy and thereby for the EEC’s development into an international economic power. According to Koops, the slow delegitimization of brute force and military power in international relations during that particular period facilitated the EEC to acquire importance as an economic power. In his opinion, the African decolonization process provided with the EEC an opportunity for crafting a continuing privileged relationship with former colonies.

In 1970, with the European Political Cooperation (EPC), the European community (EC) leaders increasingly attempted to convert its role into international political power. François Duchêne, a policy analyst, was the first who described the EC as a distinct actor in international affairs. An international subject able to promote Civilian Power: springing the civil and democratic standards in the world, using its economic power. In 1973, with the «Declaration on European identity» was formulated and the foreign ministers of the nine member states stated that it was necessary to extend the democratic principles on which the EC was based, speaking with one voice. In 1974, the UN General Assembly gave the EC a permanent observer’s status, and this helped the Community to become an international political player. During the early 1980’s, the increasing Cold War tensions, led to a resurgence of the military issues at the international level. A change in the international context led the EC to reconsider its military power.

The lack of a significant contribution by the EC during the US-led Gulf War against Iraq in 1991 and the EC’s collective failure to respond effectively to the Bosnian War (1992-1995) underlined the fact that what George Bush’s (senior), rather hyperbolically, declared post-Cold War ‘new world order’ was being shaped without much of an EC input. Although the Maastricht Treaty, signed in 1992, was meant to provide the newly created European Union with a more institutionalized, visible, and resolute foreign policy system, the expectations generated by this Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) mechanism could not be matched by its capabilities. After the birth of the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) at the Helsinki and Cologne EU Council summits in 1999, the Treaty of Amsterdam (in force since 1999) established the office of a High Representative/Secretary General for the CFSP, while the Treaty of Nice (signed in 2001 and in force since 2003) created several new ESDP institutions.

The development of the EU towards a potential military power needs to be viewed in the international security context of the 1990s.

The alleged transformative effects of EU enlargement have prompted policy-makers and academic commentators to conceptualize the EU as a transformative and ‘structural diplomatic power’. The conceptualization of the EU as a normative power can be seen as the boldest variation of the civilian power notion by arguing that not only is the EU constructed on a normative basis, but importantly that this predisposes it to act in a normative way in world politics.

Since 2003, experts defined the UE as a civilian power with teeth. The Berlin Plus agreement established the incorporation within NATO’s defence planning of the military needs and capabilities, and the exchange of classified information under reciprocal security protection rules. In this sense the EU developed its (evolved as an international actor and reconsidered the) military dimension, but at the same time it increased institutionalisation and cooperation with others international organisations (such us the UN). It began also a comprehensive approach. The EU approach to comprehensive security is intimately linked to multilateralism, and to the promotion of security in close partnerships with other states and international organisations.

The conceptual evolution of the European Union shows that it is the result of a path started in the ‘50s, and that is still on ongoing process. Its specificity lies in the fact that the EU is not an exclusive actor, because it could contain several features that make it a power in economic, civil, military, and normative terms. In other words, focusing on foreign policy, to use a classic definition, the “EU is Mars utilising Venus means”.

2. What strategy in Syria according to the Council ?

In 2011, the EU responded to the unacceptable violence used by the military and security forces against peaceful demonstrators. The EU suspended its cooperation with the Syrian Government under the European Neighbourhood Policy and gradually extended restrictive measures against the Syrian Government. From the very outset, the EU has condemned human rights violations in Syria in strongest terms. The EU is a full member and active participant in the International Syria Support Group. It fully supports the UN-led process, notably the efforts of the UN Special Envoy for Syria. According to the European external action service, only a Syrian-led political process leading to a peaceful and inclusive transition, based on the principles of the Geneva communiqué of 30 June 2012 and in line with relevant UN Security Council resolutions 2254 (2015), will bring back stability to Syria. In March 2015, the Foreign Affairs Council adopted a comprehensive EU regional strategy for Syria, Iraq and the Da’esh threat . In this conclusion the EU condemned unreservedly the indiscriminate attacks, atrocities, killings and abuses of human rights which are perpetrated by ISIL/Da’esh and other terrorist groups. The EU’s aim was both to provide humanitarian aid, and a political solution. The main objective was to find a common solution between the central government and the moderate opposition. For this reason the EU and its Member States mobilised more than € 3.2 billion for relief and recovery assistance to those affected by the conflict inside Syria and refugees and host communities. This means that EU decided to use a humanitarian, economic, and political approach in order Syrian crisis.

The Russian airstrikes and the advancement of terrorist groups worsted both the humanitarian condition inside Syrian’s territory, and the political situation at the international level. For this reason, during the Foreign Affairs Council of 12 October 2015, the EU stated its position underlining the importance to find a political solution, under the UN auspices. This time the EU condemned each type of military action, because the US and Russian’s interventions aggravated the internal Syrian crisis. At the same time, the EU decided to intensify humanitarian diplomacy and sought ways to improve access and protection as well as to promote humanitarian principles.

In conclusion, the European approach in Syria has been based on three fundamental points: the political support (typical of a normative power), humanitarian aid (typical of a civilian power), and budgetary support (typical of an economic power). However, it seems necessary to highlight that the EU supported the efforts of the Global Coalition to contrast Da’esh in Syria and Iraq. As noted by UN Security Council Resolution 2170 (August 2014), “terrorism can only be defeated by a sustained and comprehensive approach involving the active participation and collaboration of all States […] which is why our first priority is to encourage others to join in this important endeavour”. This Coalition, formed by the US President Barack Obama, is based on five core lines: providing military support to international partners; impeding the flow of foreign fighters; stopping ISIL’s financing and funding; addressing humanitarian crises in the region and exposing ISIL’s true nature. In the end, even if an offensive approach in Syria has not been supported by the EU in itself, the EU is nevertheless part of the Coalition, whose initiative main goal is indeed a military order.

3. The European statements after the cease-fire.

On 22 February 2015, the US and Russia have agreed on a draft agreement calling for the cessation of hostilities in Syria starting from Saturday 27th February. The points of the agreement are the following:

  • The draft mentions the ceasefire between the regime and the rebel groups. As a consequence, the Truce excludes the operations against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
  • The truce is valid only for the rebels who will accept the ceasefire no later than noon on Friday 26th February.
  • Definition of « terrorist groups »: The draft does not insert two rebel groups as a terrorist organization, as requested by Moscow. There are the Ahrar al-Shaam (Free of greater Syria) and Jund al-Islam (Army of Islam), both Salafist organizations linked to Turkey and Saudi Arabia (both allies of the US).
  • The institution of a Working Group to indicate areas that will be bombed, or those controlled by the Islamic State or the Al-Nusra Front.

On 26 February, about a hundred troops of Syrian rebels announced that would respect the ceasefire. The Free Syrian Army factions and the opposition agreed to respect a temporary truce. Upon hearing the news, the ministers of Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Malta and Cyprus reiterated that the solution to the Syrian crisis couldn’t be military, and asked to immediately stop attacks on civilians and to grant access to humanitarian aid. Moreover, respect for the Syria’s sovereignty and the territorial integrity of the country were the main EU claims. In the concrete case, the policy adopted during the Syria’s crisis corresponds to the different characteristics of the European Union. During the Foreign Affairs (AFET) session of February 23, Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative, gave a speech on the cease-fire and her approach confirms the role of the EU civilian power with teeth.

During the debate, in response to questions from MPs on the true role of the EU in the civil war, the HR argued that the EU’s task has been founded and will be based on two objectives: the humanitarian aid and the political solution. Regarding the humanitarian approach, Mogherini said that 114 humanitarian aid trucks had reached 83,000 people, and that the EU and its member states had pledged two thirds of all humanitarian aid. Concerning the political process, she said it was important to keep to agreements, because the political transition should include revising the Syrian Constitution and elections to be held within 18 months.

The European Union, even after international pressure, has consistently refused to undertake a military operation in Syria. The lack of an intervention is not derived from legitimacy or alliances questions. The question sinks into the very roots of the evolution of the European Union, as the military aspect is only one of the components of European identity. The European Union prefers to mobilize political, normative and economic means before considering a military operation. The foreign policy of defects doesn’t stem only from structural issues related primarily to the lack of a European army, but derive from the historical path that has highlighted the evolution. A military intervention has never been put on the European agenda, especially after the US and Russia interventions. The EU wants a political and negotiated solution: siding at the military level for one of the two sides would lead to the escalation of the fighting. In conclusion, foreign policy and defense identity is linked to the path taken after the end of World War II. The EU approach to comprehensive security is intimately linked to multilateralism, and to the promotion of security in close partnerships with the other states and international organisations.

Maria Elena Argano 

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Adeline Silva Pereira

Après avoir effectué la deuxième année du master Sécurité Globale analyste politique trilingue à l'Université de Bordeaux, j'effectue un stage au sein d'EU Logos afin de pouvoir mettre en pratique mes compétences d'analyste concernant l'actualité européenne sur la défense, la sécurité et plus largement la coopération judiciaire et policière.

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