Strikes in Syria: what is the role of the EU?

April 24, 2018



As in all foreign crisis the role of the EU is not even close to what could and should be. The decline of European military forces was already clear right after the end of WWII. However, it became even clearer with the Suez crisis.  In fact, the year 1957 marked the end of the supremacy of European States, especially France and England, as military world powers.


Nevertheless, the EU faces no lack of military resources. In fact, combined, the 28 Member States represent the second largest military force in the world. However, the Union is affected by scarce political willingness, courage and, above all, unity. Someone tries to hide the problem, calling it “caution”, “diplomacy”. Still, this has nothing to do with sacrosanct diplomacy. Rather, the word “cowardice” may be more appropriate. The lack of unity is the mark of almost any European solution to foreign crisis. Our disunity in the MENA region has helped creating the chaos we all see today. Moreover, it has given breeding ground for ISIS to grow. Again, the EU displayed disunity few days ago when France and UK decided, together with the US, to bomb Syrian military targets, without coordinating with other Member States and without waiting for authorization from the UN.


How did we end up there?

The reasons, or maybe, the pretext, for the US and other Western countries to take military actions is the ousting of dictators, the protection of civil rights, the promotion of democracy, as only possible drivers of peace and stability. Yet, we forget that military intervention is never the suitable means through which achieve those goals. The affirmation of a functioning democracy may take decades, even centuries. It is a tough process which is impossible to complete overnight. What we saw in Libya and Egypt during the Arab Spring is the proof. In addition, Western countries only undertake military action when it is convenient for them.  The Syrian revolution is not very different from those broken out in Libya and Egypt. Yet, Western powers intervened in the former case, in the latter did not.


In 2011, the Arab Spring took place in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and almost the entire Arab world. The rebellion was aimed at enhancing democracy, human rights, social opportunities, freedom. Still, the mistake was always the same: where Western powers intervened they left right after the end of the conflict without dealing with the following and much more complicated transition phase; where the situation was already tricky from the beginning, like in the Syrian case, noble motives did not longer apply and instead of looking for a solution.


After the Homs massacre, the bloodbath of Aleppo, the attacks with chemical weapons against civilians, we kept doing nothing and we allowed Bashar-al-Assad to continue the slaughter of his own people, unhindered. No no-fly zones like in Libya, no humanitarian corridors, nothing at all. The consequences were foreseeable: almost 5 million refugees poured westward, heading for Europe, undermining the governments and internal balance of all member states. Not to mention the power vacuum, left by the opponents nearly on their knees, immediately filled by Islamic extremists. As a consequence, the rise of ISIS allowed Assad to preserve his agonising regime, considered the only real opposition to ISIS in the region. After the attacks in Paris, everyone declared war on ISIS, even Russia. However, Russian bombings were not addressed to the Islamic state, but to the rebels. In fact, Putin's goal has always been clear: to keep Assad in power at all costs.



Why is it so difficult to solve the Syrian Crisis?

Syria war is a chaos, a powder keg. After six years, the conflict is divided into 4 sides, each one with foreign allies which don’t even agree with each other, even on who they are fighting for and against.


At the beginning there were two parties in the conflict: the dictator Assad on the one side and the rebels, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), on the other. Right after, the Kurds joined the FSA in the fight against Assad with the hope of obtaining the autonomy of their region. Then the extremists saw in the instability of the region the opportunity to create an Islamic Caliphate. Soon after, foreign powers stepped in the already complicated puzzle. Iran started supporting Assad militarily and economically. Conversely, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Jordan, sent aids to the rebels to counterbalance Iranian influence. The US tried to support the rebels and in contrast Russia gave assistance to Assad in order to prevent the region from falling under American hegemony. The Americans and Russians both fought ISIS. Still, while the Americans believed that ISIS was a threat greater than Assad and stopped the fight against his regime, the Russians kept bombing the rebels. Finally, both Turkey and Kurds fought ISIS, but, at the same time, they fought each other.


Why did France, the UK and the US decided to attack now?

The defeat of ISIS shuffles cards on the table. After last year's chemical attacks carried out by the Syrian regime, the US have already re-started their fight against Assad. However, in the night between April 13 and 14, France and the UK joined the military intervention. In contrast, Putin offered a shield to Damascus. The UN condemned the actions as destabilising. In fact, for some, the intervention of the three military forces has nothing to do with achieving peace: in their opinion, Americans just want to prove they are not overlooking Assad’s use of chemical weapons; according to others, they also want to divert attention from Trump internal problems, as Russia-gate or Stormy Daniels scandal. Others think it is all a façade. In fact, thanks to the latest attack, Western powers can say they acted. Russia can say the bombing was minimal and there is no need to react. Both sides have a scapegoat. Indeed, the British prime minister, Theresa may, has clarified that the attack is substantially demonstrative, a 'deterrent' operation against future use of chemical weapons by the dictator. Still, in the background of the military operation remains the deterioration of diplomatic relations between Moscow and London after the Skripal case.


What will happen?

However, the risk, as always in these cases, is the accident, the unexpected. History has a long list of wars begun "by accident". And the operations, the Pentagon announces, could continue.


Italy, despite hosting American military bases and missiles, does not participate in the operations while supporting the allies. The difficult political situation in the formation of the government does not allow it.


What happened during the night between 12 and 13 April, had a too small weight to have significant repercussions on the Syrian situation. It will not be the solution, just as it was not last year's attack on the Syrian military base.


The scenarios are very different, but a possible escalation is unlikely. Trump says that the mission is accomplished. France talks about circumscribed attacks. The UK says there have only been demonstrative attacks. In addition, Trump’s speech addressed Russia, suggesting an effort to ameliorate again diplomatic relations.


The role of the European Union remains, as always, marginal. In order to shoulder its full responsibility, the EU should adopt a different strategy. Deciding whether to act or not is never easy, especially if the situation is so delicate. However, what matters is to act together and with an appropriate plan from the beginning until the end of the transition phase. Otherwise we are never going to solve the international crisis we face. We would be always doomed to international irrelevance.  

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