Monday

27th May 2019

Opinion

Syria: Arab war-drums and EU shyness

  • Assad poster. 'The EU risks losing face by making vague and non-committal statements' (Photo: anjci)

The staying power of President Bashar Assad's regime in Syria is provoking two main responses from the international community.

Gulf Arab states, led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are calling for arming the opposition (and are reportedly doing so already). Western states are proving more cautious, announcing increases in humanitarian aid and upgrading rhetorical condemnation.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

Such divisions were reflected at the first 'Friends of Syria' meeting in Tunis, where representatives from over 60 states failed to agree on a concrete course of action to end violence.

The appointment of former UN secretary-general Kofi Anan as joint UN-Arab League special envoy for Syria is the closest the international community has come to consensus. By supporting Anan's mandate to engage with opposition forces and the regime alike, the EU is exploring ways other than military intervention to oust Assad.

For the EU to follow the decision of the Gulf states to expel their Syrian ambassadors may sit well with audiences at home, but will not prevent the military crackdown.

Already six EU member states have recalled their ambassadors to Syria. But this reduces diplomatic avenues for pursuing a solution and exacerbates one of the key characteristics of the Syria conflict: paucity of information.

Rumours of Iranian warships docking at the Syrian port of Tartus and of US drones patrolling the skies smack of a dangerous escalation into proxy warfare in one of the most volatile regions of the world. Relatively untouched since the start of the uprisings almost a year ago, Damascus and Aleppo are now seeing their own large-scale protests and violent regime counter-measures.

In stark contrast to events on the ground, Assad seems to be pushing ahead with domestic reforms.

But the recent constitutional referendum was too little and too late. Limiting the president's mandate to two 7-year terms does not satisfy calls from the opposition for him to step down. Nor does removing his Baath party's status as "leader of the country" act as a sufficient guarantee of multi-party democracy.

Meanwhile, Assad continues to blame the uprisings on "armed terrorist groups" and the US has unintentionally given him a political gift.

US national intelligence director James Clapper recently voiced concerns that Al-Qaeda in Iraq is now operating from within Syria. This creates new difficulties for Western and Arab states struggling to find ways to help force Assad out of power. The EU should be wary of buying into such alarmist US discourse.

EU support to date has been cautious but firm.

EU high representative Catherine Ashton has recognised the Syrian National Council as "an interlocutor" if not "the legitimate representative" of the Syrian opposition. Britain has announced £2 million in aid for protesters, while France is investigating the logistics of creating humanitarian corridors into neighbouring countries.

Wording in this case matters. Russia and China will continue to veto any UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution that may lead to military intervention. If, however, a UN text refers specifically to "escorting aid convoys" or "assuring the safety of the International Red Cross" they might find it hard to justify more vetos.

For now, those advocating intervention in Syria are still short of the three conditions that were present in Libya: a UNSC legal mandate; an Arab League or a Organisation of Islamic Co-operation political mandate; and regime military weakness. Defections have not yet emerged in the higher ranks of the Syrian army or among Syrian diplomats abroad.

In the diplomatic arena, the EU risks losing face by making vague and non-committal statements. Support for an "inclusive process to take the country forward" as voiced by Catherine Ashton on her recent trip to Washington lacks any concrete proposals.

The EU must not be tempted by neutrality.

But to bring about long-term stability it will have to work with some elements of the current state apparatus. The EU is right to adopt firm sanctions but must also cash in on years of engagement with the regime to push parts of the state in a reformist direction.

Diplomats face the unenviable task of charting a course between two sobering and opposing lessons of recent years: tragic inaction, as in the Balkans, and the frightening recklessness of the Iraq invasion.

Helene Michou is a researcher at the Madrid-based think tank, Fride

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Russia: EU and US want war with Syria

Russia has accused Nato countries of trying to start a war with Syria and foment unrest in Iran - claims backed up by some Western security analysts.

EU sanctions regime cannot be an 'EU Magnitsky Act'

The debate about the choice of name should not boil down to a political muscle show against Hungary, which opposes the reference to Magnitsky because of its political relations with the Russian government.

News in Brief

  1. Russia-critical banker elected president of Lithuania
  2. Timmermans calls for 'progressive alliance'
  3. Catalonia's Puigdemont wins MEP seat
  4. Weber opens door to alliance with greens and liberals
  5. Tsipras calls snap Greek election after EP defeat
  6. Polish ruling PiS takes lion's share of EU vote
  7. Romanian voters punish ruling PSD party
  8. First official EP projection: EPP remain top, Greens fourth

Press freedom and the EU elections

We are campaigning for the next European Commission to appoint a commissioner with a clear mandate to take on the challenge of the protection of freedom, independence and diversity of journalism.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  3. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  4. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  5. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  6. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  11. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  12. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year

Latest News

  1. Salvini triumphs in Italy
  2. After victory, Farage wants seat at Brexit talks
  3. Key takeaways from the European elections
  4. Populists' EU breakthrough fails, greens and liberals gain
  5. Jubilant Greens in party mood after first EP projection
  6. 2019 European election results
  7. Thunberg: We can still fix climate, but must start today
  8. Turnout up in Slovakia, with pro-EU liberals scoring high

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  3. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  5. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  8. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  9. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  10. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  11. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us