Europe’s Multilevel Governance And Foreign Policy In The Syrian Civil War

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In this paper I will try to highlight the role that the European Union played in the Syrian crisis, taking place right at its doorsteps. Through its history, the European Union has showed a strong interest towards Middle-Eastern countries but, despite the good intentions, the incoherence between its words and actions has become more and more evident. I will attempt to provide a big picture of the conflict (understanding which actors are involved in it) and to give a look to EU’s foreign policy and relations with Syria over the time. By analysing how EU’s multilevel governance worked in the Syrian crisis, I hope that the contradictions that characterise EU’s foreign policy may surface. Questioning Europe’s role in today’s world might help us avoid or tackle better such crisis in the future.

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The Origins of the Civil War: Sectarian Divides in Syrian Society

The events of the Syrian crisis started on the 15th of March 2011 with the first public demonstrations against the local government. These demonstrations were part of the wider context of the Arab spring, and later developed in uprisings on national scale and ultimately in a civil war that is currently taking place. Initial protests meant to lead to the resignation of president Bashar Al-Assad and to get rid of the one-party institutional structure. Due to the strategic position of Syria, its international bonds and the persistent civil war, the crisis has affected and involved the bordering countries and a substantial part of the international community.

Long established structural issues had plagued Syrian society. The Baath Political Party’s dominance of virtually every aspect of Syrian life set the conditions for an insider-outsider tension that simmered for decades. Being a Baathist permitted advantages of any kind, from every-day life benefits to more relevant concerns. For instance, if you were an Alawite or a career military or intelligence official, you were most likely a Baathist. This nexus of political, economic, social, and security controls, form the cleavage that separates government supporters from the rest. At first sight the Syrian conflict resembles a religious/ethnic dispute but there are stronger interests behind this smokescreen. The managing members of the Baath Party and the president himself belong to the Alawite religious community, a branch of Shiism which compared to the preponderance of Sunnis in the country, is a minority in Syria. This is one of the reasons why the Shiite Iran took the government’s side and provided protection through combatants who are fighting alongside the Syrian army to maintain Assad government in power. Furthermore, the government is supported by Shiite combatants from other countries, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

The rebel front, on the contrary, is supported by Turkey and the Sunni countries of the Gulf, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar, whose goal is to contrast the Shiite presence in the Middle East. The fragile ethnic and religious composition of the Syrian population is mirrored by the groups on the battlefield. Although the first anti-government demonstrations had a more “lay” nature and had involved all the major cities (including the Alawi ones such as Latakia) the crisis brought about a polarization of, as often is the case, the sides. In fact, the Shiite component went on to support the Baath Party, alongside a great part of the religious minorities who have benefited for a long time from the protection of the lay Baath government.

International Organizations accused the government forces and the Shabiha Militia of using civilians as human shields, of intentionally pointing weapons at them, of adopting scorched-earth tactic and committing mass murder; the anti-government rebels on the other side have been accused of human right abuses, such as torture, abduction, and the execution of soldiers and civilians. The massacres perpetrated by the extremist components towards religious minorities in Syria has led the UN to define this civil war as a “conflict of sectarian nature”.

The Contrasting Configuration of the Battlefield: from Non-State to International Actors

As shown in the previous paragraph, the interests in the conflict are numerous and contrasting and the various actors advancing them are so diverse that a consensual resolution seems impossible to reach. In fact, in the area, local, regional and international interests are put into place with dynamics that go far beyond a conventional dispute over ethnicity or religion. This war is fought on two levels; first on the mere battlefield, by primary actors, and second by supporters, mostly states defending their interests by taking a side in the conflict.

On the establishment side, Bashar Al-Assad, who revealed himself to be a sanguinary dictator using large-scale artillery against the insurgencies, leading to the death of thousands of civilians. In addition, the operational space includes the Iranians, who have shrugged off the hard feelings born of the eight-year war against Iraq and are supporting both the Iraqis and Assad in recouping territory and retaining power, respectively. Furthermore, in August 2016, Turkey sent forces across the border into Syria on an operation, ostensibly supporting the “Free Syrian Army” forces in clearing ISIS elements away from the border. This operation has been widely recognized as intending to prevent the Syrian Kurdish Group known as the PYD , from establishing a contiguous territory under Kurdish control along Turkey’s southern border.

The rebel front is mainly made up of Sunnis, although they do not constitute a compact block: a part of the Sunni population still supports the government and some members of the executive, as well as the majority of the military, are Sunni. There’s also a big component of non-state actors taking their side in the conflict. First off, Al Qaeda affiliated extreme organisations in Syria, namely Jabhat al Nusra (JAN) and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

These organizations, despite having a late arrival onto the scene, seized significant territory in Syria and Iraq imposing a harsh brand of Sharia that somehow blends public beheadings with strategic communications savvy. The extremist purposes advanced by these groups are not only over economic interests or territorial expansion: ISIS for instance also pushes forward its terroristic strategy on an international level. Its goal is to recruit occidentals devoted to their cause, the disruption of the West and the annihilation of all “Kafirs” in order to establish an International Islamic Caliphate.

To be distinguished from the actors that are on the battlefield is the alliances component. These allies play a big role supporting one side or the other and influencing the conflict in a significant way. Indeed, the clash of interests among the opposing “string-pullers” made the search for a resolution increasingly harder, leading to a stall in the United Nation’s framework. A major rift took place between the United States, France and Great Britain who explicitly expressed their endorsement to the rebels and China and Russia who are supporting the Syrian government both in diplomatic and military context.

The paralysis within the United Nation Security Council is given by the veto-power held by China and Russia who are opposing every decision to intervene militarily, emphasising the dominance of the non-interference principle, national sovereignty and national interests. The UNSC veto system still creates situations in which states can commit mass atrocity crimes against their citizens without facing any consequences.

The European Union has not been mentioned until now because of the marginal influence it played in the conflict. Despite its proximity to Syria and the alleged promotion for the imperishable values over human rights, and regardless of the close relation with the country (that will be illustrated in the next paragraph) its role has been mostly irrelevant and its promises hollows. How did the EU affect the Syrian crisis and vice-versa?

European Union’s role in the Syrian conflict

Albeit the European Union is largely concerned by the Syrian crisis it has not given a compelling contribute to the easing of the conflict. EU-Syria relations prior to the uprisings were quite broad and far-reaching. The EU-Syria Co-operation Agreement was the legal bond that regulated the relations among the two in 1977, and later developed in the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP). The EMP was the first attempt made by the European Union for a coordinated action with Middle Eastern countries, and its aim was to promote “regional stability through economic integration and democratization in a multilateral forum”.

A second attempt took place in the aftermath of 9/11 when the EU launched the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) with the objective of using a multilateral approach to the very diverse cultures and systems that characterise Middle-Eastern countries. This initiative was intended to promote “good governance, economic stability, democracy and human rights.” Although the agreement with Syria was never signed, the ENP became the main vehicle for the EU to provide funding to Arab Mediterranean countries as long as they met the Action Plan provisions of government and economic reform and other issues affecting the country’s development.

Later in 2007 the EU will outline the relation that intercurred with Syria in the “Syria: Country Strategy Paper (2007-2013)” stating that: “ Syria is a key factor in regional stability and plays a pivotal role as a transit country between the EU and the Middle East”. This paper asserted that there is a mutual benefit in a closer relationship between Syria and the EU, highlighting the strong potential for further economic relations and the wish for the EU to improve the welfare of the Syrian population. A few months after the Syrian public protests burst in March 2011, and with the repression put in place by the government, the EU made its warnings and accusations with regard to the “violent repression of demonstrators”, “urging the authorities to exercise the utmost restraint across the country and to meet the legitimate demands and aspirations of the people with dialogue and urgent political and socio-economic reforms”.

The first concrete response by the EU came in May 2011 and it included measures such as suspending the bilateral cooperation programmes under the ENP, freezing the participation of Syrian authorities in EU’s regional projects and furthermore and imposing unilateral sanctions. The answer from the Syrian foreign minister came in June of the same year. He stated to the media that “We will forget that there is Europe on the map, and I shall recommend the leadership to suspend our membership in the Union for the Mediterranean, we have already frozen our dialogue on the European partnership, we will instead look eastward and southward and in every direction that extends its hands to Syria. The world is not only Europe”.

Worryingly enough, in the wake of this deposition Syria suspended its membership from the Union for the Mediterranean and sought elsewhere for support -primarily Russia, Iran and China- causing what probably is the harshest rift of the conflict. Following the increasing violence that came about during the conflict (perpetrated both by the government and the rebels) further imputations were made towards the head of the state, Bashar Al-Assad.

The major breakthrough came in August, due to the harsh repression of the protests through the use of large-scale military force. The European Union declared: “The President’s promises of reform have lost all credibility as reforms cannot succeed under permanent repression. The EU notes the complete loss of Bashar al-Assad’s legitimacy in the eyes of the Syrian people and the necessity for him to step aside”. This demand did not come just from the EU as a supra-national actor, but it was also joined by declarations from the United Kingdom, France, Germany in addition to the United States. The hope was that such coordination would force Al-Assad to resign.

There was a major complication with this request: neither the EU, nor its Member States, nor even the United States were in a position to impose such command as they missed the virtually mandatory cooperation of China, Russia and Iran. The choice to concentrate on Al-Assad, and to freeze any cooperation with each and every other layers of possible authority, meant that the EU lost its capacity to leverage the Syrian government. This decision was fostered by the beliefs in the idea that a regime is going to revise its conduct when such harsh measures are imposed. These assumptions not only proved to be wrong, but they have also worsened the situation, depriving the EU of its ability to influence the situation.

To sum-up the performance of the EU towards Syria it is sufficient to examine one of the last statements the European Council released on May 2018, which was in essence an extension of the measures that have been put into place since the tightening of the conflict. In this statement the Council reiterates and emphasises that the sanctions in force include embargo on petroleum, restriction upon investments (from third parts), freezing the goods of Syria’s Central Bank held by the EU and restraints over the export of technological equipment. The resolution closes with the commitment renewal of the EU to foster and promote “A political creditable solution” to the conflict as it was previously defined in the UNSC 2254 Resolution and the Geneva report of 2012.

This sheds light on the kind of role that the EU had in the Syrian conflict by presenting the instrument that the Union has been using to tackle the crisis: sanctions. Although sanctions can be a very powerful mean to influence an actor, and though diplomacy is nowadays conducted through soft-power, the end result is what matters: have the sanctions changed the behaviour of the Syrian government accordingly?

The answer is: despite the sanctions, the conflict in Syria continued and escalated. Moreover, the sanctions on Syria did not prevent the Syrian regime from using chemical weapons against the civilian population in 2013 and didn’t bring any significant positive change in the development of the conflict. The case of Syria shows that imposing sanctions alone cannot change the regime behaviour and end the conflict. Besides, with such significant external support that the Syrian regime enjoys, sanctions are more likely to affect the civilians than the Syrian regime. All in all, the role that the European Union had and in the resolution of the Syrian conflict is very marginal. But why is that so? If good intentions do exist, how come Europe is not capable of giving a major impact? Why can’t EU take the lead and the responsibility of the issue upon its shoulders?

14 May 2021

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