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As Syria Sinks to the Back Pages, What is Europe Doing Now?

By Jeremy Weiss, a guest contributor. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Boston University.


With the eruption of the Ukrainian crisis, the focus of Europe and the world has drifted from the Middle East to dangerous instability in Europe’s backyard. Since the collapse of the Geneva II peace talks in February and the Russian Duma’s approval of the use of Russian forces in Crimea on March 1, there have been no diplomatic initiatives and little discussion aimed at ending the conflict in Syria.

Most recently, France and nearly sixty additional countries brought a motion in the United Nations asking the Security Council to empower the International Criminal Court to investigate war crimes in Syria. The measure fell to vetoes from Russia and China. Russian UN representative Vitaly Churkin expressed his country’s fear that approval would enable Western military intervention in Syria – a view likely formulated with memories of the 2011 NATO operation in Libya in mind. China claimed the resolution would endanger any potential return to the Geneva talks. The UN’s Deputy Secretary General, Jan Eliasson of Sweden, warned that continued inaction on Syria undermines UN credibility, while France’s Gerard Arnaud, who submitted the resolution, minced no words: “There is a moment when you realize you are powerless in front of barbarians and their supporters.” Days before this anticipated diplomatic rebuff, the UN also suffered a setback when its Syria envoy, Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, resigned, prompting other diplomats involved in the Geneva process to fret that a solution to the Syrian war seems increasingly unlikely.

If the UN is in danger of losing stature and appearing powerless in the face of this instability, EU member states are faring no better on their own. On April 14, a meeting of EU foreign ministers offered no proposals for reinvigorating the peace process, resulting only in vague appeals for “a political solution” and a statement reading: “The EU urges those with influence on the Syrian regime to put pressure on it to engage much more constructively in the talks.” A May 7 meeting between representatives of the EU and Japan likewise resulted only in renewed appeals for a resumption of the Geneva talks and “planning for genuine political transition.”

While some news is positive – in April, Europe was buoyed with the release of French and Spanish journalists who had been held hostage in Syria – the EU now finds itself forced to cope with spillover effects that are reaching across the Mediterranean.  Concerns about migration between Europe and Syria, persist, and EU states have yet to deal with them in an effective or concerted manner. With 2.75 million refugees having fled Syria, many have begun appearing at Europe’s borders. The BBC reports that 6,000 have entered Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest country, and one ill-equipped to cope with a tide of beleaguered migrants seeking entry from across the Turkish frontier. While one Bulgarian campaigner for better treatment of refugees believes Sofia may be preparing for up to 25,000 Syrian refugees to arrive, other developments suggest otherwise. The same BBC report details the increase in funds Bulgaria has provided its border police to help seal transit routes to refugees, while more brutal methods have been employed to dissuade Syrians from seeking entry to Bulgaria.

At sea, Syrian refugees face even greater hurdles. Hundreds died during 2013 attempting to cross to Italy from Libya, where up to half a million Syrians may await the chance to make the risky voyage themselves. Italy has launched a maritime rescue operation to collect migrants from their unseaworthy craft and deliver them to Italian shores, where they can initiate asylum proceedings. Its leaders bemoan the lack of support from other EU states – only Slovenia has provided additional vessels – while anti-immigration forces in Italy condemn “Operation Mare Nostrum” entirely, arguing that Italy cannot afford an influx of asylum-seekers.

They are not alone in their disapproval of sheltering Syrian refugees in Europe. The European Commission’s Home Affairs Minister, Cecilia Malmstrom, has criticized member states for doing little to help asylum seekers. Malmstrom laments that “pathetically few” EU states have demonstrated willingness to accept resettled Syrian refugees. According to her, fourteen members have declined, citing high unemployment in the wake of the euro crisis. In response, Malmstrom remarked: “I would have hoped for stronger political leadership in all countries to stand up against those forces.”

European governments are also troubled by travel between Europe and Syria in the opposite direction. European Muslims fighting in Syria have recently garnered attention as their numbers continue to grow. The number of European combatants in Syria doubled during 2013, with government officials from France and the UK estimating the number of their nationals fighting alongside Syrian rebels at 700 and 500, respectively. This rise in the number of European jihadis is confirmed by research from the Washington Institute, which tracked the increase from a maximum estimate of 590 in April 2013, to 1,937 by the end of the year. The report estimates that Europeans comprised 18% of foreign fighters in Syria in December 2013, with significant numbers having arrived from across Western Europe. While European governments wish to deprive combatants of recruits, they also fear that returning Syrian fighters may perpetrate attacks against the West following radicalization during the conflict. Lending credence to these fears, a suspect arrested in Marseille on May 30 in connection with the recent triple murder at the Brussels Jewish Museum is believed to have spent the past year fighting with a jihadist group in Syria.

Denmark has reacted to this threat by launching programs designed to stem radicalization among its Muslim population. Other European governments hope to penalize those journeying to Syria and prevent their return. A British parliamentary report warns that the number of British Muslims among Syrian rebel groups has reached “alarming levels” and recommends that the government revoke the passports of those who have fought in Syria. French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has recommended that his country impose similar penalties on its citizens fighting in Syria, and forbid the departure of minors from the country without parental consent, noting the risk that radicalized youths seek travel to Syria against the will of their elders.

Returning to Ambassador Arnaud’s concerns, is Europe really powerless in the face of “barbarians?” The Syrian conflict has underscored the continued inability of the UN to pressure combatants backed by a permanent member of the UNSC. Europe, which had been able to foster close cooperation with the United States in mustering a rapid response to the Libyan civil war, has not been able to repeat this success in Syria, owing to Damascus’ close relations with Russia. Indeed, some analysts believe that future peace talks will only occur once the Assad regime regains ascendency. Unable to project diplomatic or military power in the region against a Russian client state, observers could easily conclude that Europe is indeed powerless against Assad and his allies.

More disappointing, however, is Europe’s failure to deal with problems directly under its control. The EU is not aiding Bulgaria as it struggles to cope with a swelling number of refugees. Nor are other EU states assisting Italy’s attempts to save lives at sea. While European leaders must remain sensitive to voters who do not wish to shelter additional refugees and asylum claimants in their countries, the seeming inability to collaborate in the face of problems that have already been thrust upon fellow EU states is, as Cecilia Malmstrom lamented, very disappointing for anyone who wishes to see the EU live up to its promises of mutual support to member states. Allowing hundreds of refugees to drown in the Mediterranean undermines Europe’s humanitarian image. In addition, the European ideal has failed to dissuade potentially thousands of European Muslims from taking up arms in Syria; a failure that now threatens the security of Europe. European governments also failed to take corrective action against this problem until after the Syrian civil war entered its fourth year. Although Ukraine has dominated headlines recently, European leaders should not lose sight of the Syrian crisis and the weaknesses in European power and integration it continues to expose. Not only do they raise questions about the strength of European foreign policy, but they also fuel skepticism regarding Europe’s potential to craft effective domestic burden-sharing arrangements.  


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