By Aleksander Thomas. Originally published on 2013/02/06
When coming into power in 2000, Bashar al-Assad had to utilize a non-conventional defence strategy in order to diminish the regional power structures of Israel and Turkey. He relied on Hezbollah’s capacity to engage forces in asymmetric warfare and investment in missiles with chemical warheads in hardened sites that targeted Israel(Hinnebusch, 2011). After failed peace talks between Syria and Israel (following the meeting between Bashar and US President Clinton in 2000), Syria allied itself with Iran, resorting to a foreign policy similar to Muammar al-Gaddafi by encouraging terror. The most recent and dangerous concern for the West is Assad’s ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon, where it can be clearly noted that Syria has critical security interests. Here the West and Syria support opposing groups (Hinnebusch, 2011) with Syria using Hezbollah’s proven ability to confront Israel; a pivotal part of the Israeli-Syrian power balance (Hinnebusch, 2011). As the international relations between Syria and Turkey eroded Syria created a closer coalition with Iran. By 2009 the support framework had widened as Syria had managed to position itself between two networks: on the one hand, it was still part of the Iran-led “resistance axis” and had developed diverse economic connections in Asia and renewed security and economic relations with Russia; on the other hand, it revived the option to lean toward a West-centric camp that included Saudi Arabia and the ‘moderate’ Arabs and was manifest in Turkish-sponsored peace talks with Israel; closer relations with Western Europe, symbolized by the detente with France; and a cautious improvement in relations with the United States under the new administration of Barack Obama.”(Hinnebusch, 2011)
The developments leading to the revolution in Syria have gained little international attention. The response of the EU to the Syrian conflict clearly shows a major difference to that of the Libyan conflict. One has to look at the big picture first, keeping in mind that the EU is facing a greater and more complex situation when considering an intervention in Syria. Firstly, one has to take into account that legally the EU, Arab-led coalition or NATO cannot intervene, as the Syrian government is seen and recognised by the UN as a legal constitutional body. Secondly, the security risks that would result from a European Union intervention could trouble the relations between EU member states and their diplomatic relations to states such as Turkey, Iran and Iraq as there is neither legal basis nor consensus for a justified invasion. A reasonable explanation to the lack of intervention from the EU is the fear of initiating a more rapid conflict in the region as well as an increase in North Africa of Islamic fundamentalism. According to a press release on the 23/04/2011 by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, the EU has condemned the use of force, and called for justice to be taken against those responsible for the repression, with a desire for restrictive measures also announced. During another press release on 29/04/2011, the EU also ‘reminded’ Syria of its obligations to democratic reform and human rights protection under the ENP – the same obligations that Syria had summarily ignored in the previous decade (Fröhlich, 2007). Concerning restrictive measures against Syria by the European Council from May the 9th 2011, the only actions exercised by the European Union so far include a visa ban and asset freezes of those considered most responsible for the repression, along with arms embargoes on the state as a whole.
According to Fröhlich, Syrians have paid the price of NATO excesses in Libya. Moreover, Olsen (2007) argues that the possible course of action in Syria could not be contemplated without acknowledging that the crisis was also about relations with Iran, Russia and China, and that the caution about another Western invasion of yet another Muslim country deepened with the low odds of success and the good odds of unintended perverse consequences in attacking a more formidable enemy in a more volatile strategic environment.
After examining the European Union’s stance on Syria, one has to take into account the rather mixed positions of China and Russia on the conflict, which are connected with geopolitical and commercial affairs. China and Russia are not keen on any intervention into sovereign affairs, as they fear they could get drawn into a civil war. What they see as a suitable and justified option is to conduct calm measures, which will not act as a catalyst for the break out of a civil war. According to Liu Xiaoming (China’s ambassador to the UK), they firmly reject any UN right to impose political settlements on sovereign societies, arguing that the only solution to the Syrian crisis is through an inclusive, Syrian-led process to address the legitimate aspirations of the people in an environment free of violence and human rights abuses. Moreover, he confirms that China in this process has shown a consistent and clear commitment to work with the international community to seek a responsible and lasting solution to the Syrian issue. But the vote itself is a powerful reminder of the international responsibility to choose a constructive path forward.
Therefore in conclusion the Libyan crisis was in no way a success for the EU and could only be seen as a success for individual EU nations. However, the long term effects on the EU and its members’ national interests still remain to be evaluated. The excesses of the military campaign have left considerable scars and bad feelings towards Europe in large sections of the Libyan population. In fact these military excesses had a direct consequence on the attitude of Russia and China in the Security Council during the escalation of the crisis. A direct military action as a route for the conflict resolution has been prevented through the UN and will most likely remained blocked, thus showing the strengths of the EU’s foreign policy’s stance – negotiation and pressure through sanctions and moral leadership.
It can be argued, however, that the Middle East balance of power and the physical difficulty of mounting military action against the Assad regime, as well as the EU’s habitual fear of upsetting relations with Russia, had a great influence on the stance taken by the EU It remains to be seen if this lower impact strategy will reap greater rewards for EU foreign policy.