Friday

15th Nov 2019

Opinion

Lessons EU needs to learn from the Syrian tragedy

As the argument rages over whether to provide arms to rebels in Syria, we observe once more that initially-reluctant Western governments are pushed to act just when the available options are limited and generally unpalatable.

In contrast, preventive action can save lives and protect human rights, at significantly smaller cost and risk than acting later. European states and the European Union still need to absorb this vital lesson.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 year's of archives. 30-day free trial.

... or join as a group

  • Syria: Half of EU peace spending went to only four countries already affected by conflict (Photo: Freedom House)

The timing and scale of the Arab uprisings was virtually unforeseeable, but once they had spread from Tunisia to Bahrain and Libya, it was unlikely that Syria would remain unaffected.

Yet, it was not inevitable that the isolated protests in March 2011 would spiral into an increasingly deadly conflict that has now cost more than 90,000 lives, involved war crimes, crimes against humanity and a growing risk of genocide, led to jihadist groups taking over in some places and threatened regional stability.

However, this chain of events was also not particularly surprising given historical precedent in Syria and the interests of neighbouring countries.

This is not to say that preventive action is easy, risk-free or cheap. There is no guarantee that it would have worked in Syria. But there would have been considerably more options available in early and late 2011 to influence Russia, the Syrian regime and rebel groups than there are today.

The European Union was slow with its contingency planning, the initial sanctions regime was weak, and diplomatic efforts vis-a-vis Russia lacked political urgency.

Research has persistently demonstrated that feasible options for preventive or at least mitigating action are available to decision-makers before a crisis erupts. Investment in preventive action is deemed four times more cost-effective than crisis management, relief and reconstruction efforts. In general, the principle that prevention is better than cure has gained substantial currency.

The international community demonstrated in Macedonia, El Salvador, Kenya and elsewhere, that the worst can be prevented if states and organisations act decisively using diplomatic, economic and/or military means.

Worldwide, the number and lethality of civil wars has dropped significantly due to international efforts.

Reactive peace building

EU member states, such as the UK and Germany, and the EU have embraced preventive action in a range of policy documents. Yet when faced with implementing this principle in decision-making, spending and acting, the EU falls short of its potential.

A major evaluation of the EU’s €7.7 billion spending on conflict prevention and peace-building between 2001 and 2010 criticised its reactive nature and showed that more than half of all spending went to only four countries already affected by conflict: The West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan.

The most recent example of the gap between rhetoric and practice, are the negotiations over the EU’s Instrument for Stability - an instrument worth €2 billion and designed to mobilise resources quickly to warnings about immediate or actual crises.

Member states have refused demands from the European Parliament to reserve at least 10 percent of those funds over the next seven years for preventive action.

Increasing the ringfence for prevention would be all the more important as the absolute funds available for the instrument are poised to shrink as compared to the current year.

Member states in particular prefer to concentrate attention and resources on crises and threats that are already in the headlines and where politicians can take the credit for putting out or at least containing fires.

Preventive success is by its very nature less visible - the harm does not materialise and some diplomatic efforts have to be conducted in silence to be successful.

International bodies such as the European Union could be expected to be more foresighted in its action and the EU has considerable potential in terms of its tools, expertise, and long-term staying power to make prevention the hallmark of its foreign policy.

Steps to prevent mass atrocities

To realise this objective, however, the EU needs to take a number of steps, as we have recently outlined in a report on how to strengthen the EU’s capacity to prevent mass atrocities:

First, the EU should strengthen country and regional expertise through training, career incentives, recruitment and networking with experts in member states and outside of government service.

The European External Action Service (EEAS) and the EU Council should also review the existing warning systems and assessment products which are already present within EU member states to facilitate the sharing of intelligence.

Secondly, sources of early warning should be empowered by making the EEAS less hierarchical, creating fast-track warning channels and encouraging the expression of dissent and inconvenient news from the top.

The EU should appoint a senior adviser with an explicit mandate to provide early warning of possible mass atrocities and to make recommendations for early action.

Thirdly, the EU’s capabilities to react quickly to mass atrocities should be improved by better contingency planning. Adequate structures and resources for the planning and operational coordination of missions are needed.

Fourthly, the EU should carve out regular spaces in decision-making on preventive action and become more responsive.

The EU is often too slow in its decision-making and needs to make a choice between waiting for perfectly coordinated and consensual action that comes too late, and less coordinated and limited action that is timely.

Finally, the EU needs to increase the effectiveness of its long-term preventive approach, including by devoting more money to prevention (in the Instrument for Stability and other financial progammes).

We recommend systematically assessing risk factors and relevant measures in country and regional strategy papers and making the prevention of mass atrocities a standard agenda item in the EU’s dialogues with third countries most at risk.

None of these actions can guarantee that there won’t be another Syria, but while EU leaders concentrate on solving today’s crises, they must not lose sight of avoiding tomorrow’s.

Christoph Meyer and Karen E. Smith are professors at King’s College London and the London School of Economics, respectively

Disclaimer

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

UN ignores EU calls for Syria inspections

The UN Security Council on Wednesday failed to say inspectors should get access to investigate claims of a mass-scale chemical attack in Syria.

Corruption in the Balkans: the elephant in the room

Over the years, both real and perceived levels of corruption in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia have remained high. The necessary reforms in those countries, to put it mildly, are not yet effectively carried out.

News in Brief

  1. Germany: EU banking union deal possible in December
  2. EIB: no more funding of fossil-fuel projects
  3. UK defence chief: Russia could trigger World War III
  4. Hungary's Varhelyi will face more questions
  5. Police put former Berlusconi MEP Comi under house arrest
  6. MEPs criticise Poland for criminalising sex education
  7. UK will not name new commissioner before election
  8. Trump expected to delay EU car tariff decision

'A game of roulette' - life as a journalist now in Turkey

Turkey has more journalists behind bars than any other country in the world. The authorities seem to equate journalism with terrorism: everyone has the right to express themselves, but, in their eyes, legitimate journalism is a threat to security.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersEarmarked paternity leave – an effective way to change norms
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Climate Action Weeks in December
  3. UNESDAUNESDA welcomes Nicholas Hodac as new Director General
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersBrussels welcomes Nordic culture
  5. UNESDAUNESDA appoints Nicholas Hodac as Director General
  6. UNESDASoft drinks industry co-signs Circular Plastics Alliance Declaration
  7. FEANIEngineers Europe Advisory Group: Building the engineers of the future
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  9. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021

Latest News

  1. EU threatens legal action against UK over commissioner
  2. Corruption in the Balkans: the elephant in the room
  3. Green MEPs unconvinced by Romanian commissioner
  4. EU states fell short on sharing refugees, say auditors
  5. Hungary's commissioner-to-be grilled over loyalty to Orban
  6. Widow's plea as EU diplomats debate Magnitsky Act
  7. Leftist MEPs call on EU to address crisis in Chile
  8. Mustard gas and cod: Last chance to stop Nord Stream 2?

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

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