Saturday

16th Feb 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.

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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

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