War in Syria: what can the EU do

International law remains our best chance

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The USA has struck against positions in Syria, presumably as a response to the latest chemical attack. Given President Trump’s u-turn on military intervention, and the overall unilateralism of the American policy, one cannot be certain as to what happens next. The escalation of the crisis, or anyhow the deterioration to an even worse state of affairs, cannot be excluded. In the face of this new chapter in the tragedy that is the war in Syria, the European Union should unequivocally stand for the respect of international law and only promote multilateralism as a means of arriving at a compromise agreement that will end hostilities.

There are a number of reasons calling for restraint and deliberation.

At first, the responsibility over the chemical attacks has not been clarified. A thorough investigation into the matter is needed, following approval by the United Nations. A failure to do so carries great risks, not least the ad hoc substitution of international cooperation by superpower unilateralism. The claims of the US administration, just as those of all the other sides involved in the conflict, cannot be taken at face value. Sufficient evidence is a prerequisite.

Secondly, President Trump’s ambiguous rhetoric and self-contradictions regarding foreign policy suggest that no long term plan exists, at least not one that the public is aware of. Instead of a clear roadmap on how to de-escalate the tensions and proceed to the resolution of the conflict, we are left guessing what the next round of military interventions may entail.

Thirdly, the recent history of USA-driven regime change is one of consistent failure. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya. Deposing of a tyrant is no one-off event. What happens next is equally important, if not more so. The longer-term good of the country or region—social, economic, environmental—needs to be accounted for and be properly promoted. We have witnessed the utter irresponsibility of leaving a power vacuum and letting things to their own fate. For instance, Jihadism in the form of Da’esh (Islamic State) was allowed space to grow amidst the instability in Iraq. The interventions in Afghanistan and Libya were not complemented by concerted action—and major investments in multi-faceted development policy—to foster a democratic transition. These countries still face major problems, including Jihad-inspired radicalisation.

The EU must step forward

These reasons call for a shift in approach. Things have to be done differently, especially since this time there is a remote chance of a much wider conflict than just Syria. The European Union should insist on the respect of international law and concomitant norms of conduct. No unilateral actions should be endorsed. The effort must be on getting the UN Security Council involved, first to authorise investigations as who is using chemicals weapons, and then to decide on the next steps, including the possibility of armed intervention.

Ousting Bashar al-Assad and restoring momentary peace is but a beginning. Syria must not turn into yet another failed state. What happens next is of paramount importance. The EU can formulate a plan for the reconstruction of the region by setting up a dedicated fund, open to contributions from the international community. This should, at the very least, remind political leaders of the need for longer term thinking and careful planning. Resources must be channeled to restore critical infrastructure and to place the foundations for an economic recovery that will support jobs and provide incentives for people to stay. Joblessness combined with fanaticism has all too often been among the main underlying causes of extremism.

The fund for Syria cannot come from the EU level directly, given that no such competence is envisaged in the European Treaties. What Europeans can do though is agree intergovernmentally on a purpose-specific set of measures, similar to how they set up the ‘troika’ for monitoring the bailout programmes during the euro crisis (Greece’s is ongoing). To further strengthen the credibility of this initiative, an inter-institutional agreement could be sought between the three EU institutions involved in the legislative process. The plan should be to bring the discussion to the European Parliament and make decisions as broad-based as possible.

Whatever the specifics, the EU can be proactive in the promotion of international law and the longer term good of the regions affected by war. A failure to act may force Europeans into a set of choices that is not of their own making, where they will effectively perform an ancillary role to President Trump’s unpredictable unilateralism.

No easy solutions

The crisis in Syria is complex both in its inner composition and with respect to its broader geopolitical ramifications. USA, Russia, Israel, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia all have a stake in the conflict. Aligning such diverse interests is a monumental task. Though it is possible. International law has never been delusional in its expectations, such as by demanding the outright abolition of conflict, but has rather aimed at the establishment of rules for mitigating the most pernicious instances of war and inter-state affairs.

It is in everyone’s long term interest to work towards the enforcement of norms of proper conduct and the formulation of a modicum of understanding. The recent history of US-led exceptionalism has only been to the detriment of international legality. It serves as an excuse for others to act arbitrarily and provides grist to the mill of those who outright oppose global standards.

The EU as such has the political capital and overall neutrality to act as the catalyst for change. Now is the most appropriate moment to pursue another paradigm. Mistakes of the recent past should not be repeated. It will be very difficult—and morally suspect—to support President Trump’s short term stratagems on the margins of his constitutionality only to search for genuine international cooperation further down the road.

Furthermore, and in a narrow European sense, we have reached a point where the integration process on matters of foreign and security policy will be substantiated against the backdrop of major global challenges. A positive and constructive involvement in Syria is what Europeans need to proceed in their integration as well as broaden their options beyond the confines of NATO and American hegemony.

Ultimately though, there are no winners and losers in this situation. Humanity loses. What can be done at this stage is contain hostilities and work towards their de-escalation. Multilateralism has to be restored as the default modus operandi and the full involvement of the United Nations should become a top priority. Plans for regime change in Syria must be complemented by a comprehensive strategy for the reconstruction and development of the region. Democracy does not just happen. It is not the natural turn of events following the removal of a tyrant. A democratic transition can only be successful if it is sufficiently resourced and is based on principles of inclusive governance. Syria can ill afford to turn into a failed state and act as yet another breeding ground for Jihadists. Long term thinking has to be the guide of concerted action on the international front.