Policy Brief-European Security
The current situation in Syria is a culmination of events that began with the widespread violence against governments that swept across North Africa and Middle East. The phenomenon popularly referred to as the Arab Spring left toppled governments in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. The Syrian crisis is a response to the results in these countries. It began with widespread demonstrations agitating for reforms, release of political prisoners, and an end to the widespread corruption in the government. It however degenerated to a full-fledged civilian war that has lasted since 2011.
With both economic and security interests, the EU has a major role to play in ending the crisis. Its economic ties with Syria, majorly in oil total €3 billion annually. There are also projects and portfolios worth billions of Euros at stake and therefore the need for immediate action. Possible EU course of action include:
- Sanctions against the Assad regime that include the government, individuals affiliated with the government, the repressive methods of the government, the Syrian government’s energy sector and lastly trade restrictions. This is the current situation, with economic sanctions on oil trade having been lifted to assist the rebels in fighting the more equipped government. Part of the sanctions are however not effective, such as the arms embargo since EU is not a major arms supplier of the government.
- A fully-fledged military intervention is another possible solution. This has however been sanctioned by Russia and China through a veto in the UN Security Council. It is therefore not possible for such an undertaking; besides, the opposition is largely fragmented with some being Islamist extremists whose rise to power could be equally detrimental to the Syrians and EU interests.
- Tactical support of moderate opposition through military and humanitarian assistance is another option for intervention. Given the EU’s resolution to raise the ban on oil trade in opposition strongholds, it is possible that the funding from oil sales will help hasten the opposition’s advances on the government. Additional assistance through proxy groups such as Friends of Syria offers an opportunity to quickly end the conflict and therefore reconstruct the nation, while strengthening the ties between the Union and the country
The Syrian crisis began in mid-March 2011 after widespread protests by citizens who poured into the streets demanding for meaningful change and the release of political prisoners by the government (The New York Times). The demonstrations were initially peaceful, but the Syrian national security forces responded to these demonstrations with brutal force (International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect). President al-Assad, even with the escalating national demonstrations, refused to make any meaningful reforms as demanded by the demonstrators. The president’s gestures were only partly reconciliatory, which fueled the demonstrators’ anger prompting to more than ever chant their demands. In addition to the release of political prisoners and meaningful reforms, the demonstrators wanted, “trials for those who shot and killed protesters; the abolition of Syria’s 48-year emergency law; more freedoms; and an end to pervasive corruption” (The New York Times).
The growing demands by the demonstrators and activists launched a crackdown by the al-Assad led regime on the demonstrators (Almond). However, the true genesis of the Syrian demonstrations and the subsequent crackdown by the government forces began with the Tunisian revolution, which in essence began the Arab uprising. This was a wave that swept across North Africa and the Middle East, where the nations were “experiencing high unemployment, corruption, and political repression under longtime autocratic leaders” (Almond).
While initial Syrian demonstrator’s demands were on reforms, such as civil rights, the lifting of the 48-year old state-of-emergency (which president Assad lifted), the ouster of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt prompted the demonstrators to also demand for the vacation of office by president Assad. With the lifting of the emergency and demands for the ouster of the president, the government however deepened its crackdown on the demonstrators, increasing the violence and escalating across the country and reaching Aleppo and Damascus, the largest city and the country’s capital respectively (Almond; McElroy).
The deteriorating situation in the country following the government’s continued crackdown has transformed the crisis into a fully-fledged civil war (Bakker). The opposition has since organized and grown in number composing of military defectors and civilians. Others within the opposition are breakout Iraqis who have become the foot soldiers and leaders among the opposition in Syria (Arango & Schmitt; Wong). The Free Syrian Army has emerged as the main opposition, it being the only armed force opposing the president, although there have been reports of fighters from other countries in North Africa and the Western nations, especially Europe Union member states such as Belgium, Germany and the UK (Bakker, Paulussen & Entenmann 2). An exceptionally strong group, the al-Nusra Front, has also featured among the opposition. The group is “a Syrian jihadist group fighting against Assad’s regime with the aim of establishing an Islamist state in Syria. This group has been described as the most effective rebel fighting group in Syria” (BBC; Bakker, Paulussen & Entenmann). Questions are however rife over the unity of the opposition (Almond).
The escalating crisis puts at jeopardy not only Syrian Middle Eastern neighbors such as Jordan, Iraq and Turkey which are currently swelling with refugees from the war-torn country, but also a large part of the European Union. Currently, out of the 1.9 million refugees that have left the country, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq have 1.1 million of them (Richter). Cyprus, whose shores have been filling with Syrian refugees totaling to almost one third of the country, is already feeling the brunt of the crisis with security being on high alert from the refugees coming into the country (Baker).
Concern for the crisis is also over the humanitarian situation in the country, especially for the children who it is feared will end up forming a “lost generation”. Around 4.25 million people have already been displaced by the conflict, with an additional 100,000 dead (Onishi). Scores have also been arrested by the Assad regime (Asseburg 13).The geopolitical balance of the region also hangs on a balance given the interests of the militant Sunni Muslims, the US and Russia (Onishi). For the European Union, the end of the war will mean a military presence to quell things in addition to protecting the interest of the Union (Biscop 6). It is also important that the conflict is resolved for its continued escalation poses security threats to the EU given that potential terrorist may be among the internally displaced persons (Global Post).
Policy Options, Policy Recommendations, and Justification
The current situation in Syria, having been a result of the Arab spring sweeping across North Africa and Asia (Herd & Yan 2), resulted in reaction from the EU. The initial stand of the EU was negotiation of president al-Assad with the opposition to reach an amicable resolution, and therefore an end to the crisis (Balfour). The stance later changed to a requirement of the Syrian president to stop repression and later for the president to leave office for meaningful reforms under a democratic government (Portela 2). The EU’s demands, in addition to the sanctions by the United States, were a reaction to the persistent Syrian government military operations and crackdowns on civilians.
The EU’s trade with Syria was majorly in oil, a business worth €3 billion annually (Portela 2). The bulk of this trade went to the UK and Italy. In reaction to the situation in Syria however, the EU has imposed sanctions on the Arab country, to a level that has taken a shorter time than it is customary of the Union (Asseburg 18). The five sets of sanctions imposed by the EU largely take more than a year to be descended upon a nation, but the slap has come in a few months on Syria (Council of the European Union). Even more surprising is that the sanctions by the EU came absent of the United Nation’s Security Council and with support from the League of Arab States, “a regional organization that had encouraged such measures against one of its members only once before in its history – against Iraq in the early 1990s” (Portela 2).
The sanctions issued by the EU target the government, individuals affiliated with the government, the repressive methods of the government, the Syrian government’s energy sector and lastly trade restrictions. The government-targeted sanctions “prohibit disbursements and assistance by the European Investment Bank (EIB) as well as new grants or loans by the member states” (Portela 2). Such a sanction has the potential of freezing the 17 projects initiated by the EU in Syria, as well as an estimated €1.3 billion portfolio (Norman). The sanctions cover a wide array of areas including banning private individuals from EU from conducting business with Syria, including opening banks in either the European Union or Syria in the respective territories, freezing of Syrian assets in the EU and public trading of Syrian government and public bonds in the Union (Portela 2).
On the other hand, sanctions targeting individuals involved in repression include prohibition into EU and freezing of any assets, they hold in Europe. Already the Union has issued travel bans and asset freeze for thereabouts 60 Syrians including president Assad and his family, as well as members of the government and the government military (Norman). The bans are meant to serves a double function of “cutting them off from financial assets so these cannot be used for repression and making the conduct of their business in Europe more difficult” (Portela 3). The extension of the freeze and travel bans extends to the Syrian leadership’s families since they (the family), hold key positions in entities and state companies associated with the regime.
Sanctions geared toward the regime’s repressive instruments involve arms embargo for weapons used in repression from the EU. Additionally, the sanctions include any financial and technical assistance that relate to the arms. The arms embargo has been modified to include software supplies that can be used to intercept the opposition communication as well as locate them by the regime (Gupta 1359). A further extension of the embargo has been enforced and consists of the resolve to “inspect vessels and aircraft suspected of transporting weapons to Syria via Europe” (Portela 3).
While the sanctions would work in terms of the trade between Syria and the EU, the arms embargo will however be ineffective given that most of Syrian weapons come from non-EU member states. Russia, North Korea, Iran and Belarus are among Syrian arms suppliers, with Russia being the main supplier (Mahony). More is the fact that Russia is poised to continue supplying Syria with arms even with continued international sanctions on the Middle Eastern country (Blank; Conde). The sanctions also have the potential of harming EU business interests given the volume of traffic between the two territories (Portela).
Optionally, a continued support of the opposition in arms and military intelligence, as well as humanitarian assistance as the EU and the US have silently been doing would considerable as steps towards ending the war. The opposition has conclusively made, under pressure from a well-equipped government military, little advances against the government forces (Landis). It had therefore been an uphill task for the opposition, which has not scored any gains with major cities. The dangers of such a strategy is however a continued bloodshed, loss of civilian life, destruction of the societal fabric and crippling of the economy. The EU support for the rebels has also involved lifting the sanctions on oil imports from rebel held areas, a move seen as sidelining the Assad regime and the recognition of the legitimacy of the rebels as Syrians representatives (Kodmani; Salhani).
Another viable option for EU will be direct military intervention alongside the rebels. Given that the Syrian government has been able to resist any rebel advances due to air strikes, the UK’s bases in the Mediterranean in Cyprus could offer a perfect strike base against the Syrian government (Cyprus Mail). This could work much like the NATO intervention of Libya, which led to the ousting of Gadaffi (Rasmussen 6). A joint operation would not only expedite an end to the conflict, but would also ensure the installation of a legitimate and democratic Syrian government committed to change (Rasmussen 5). Trouble with this option is however on Russia’s rejection of any outside military interference in the Syrian affair, as it has vetoed in the UN Security Council discussions (Paramaguru; Gladstone; BBC; Yan; Harris et al; Lauria).
Fast intervention in the Syrian conflict is a major priority for the EU. The region’s security and economic interests continue to be in jeopardy the longer the conflict drags. Countries such as Cyprus are overflowing with refugees, which is threatening the country’s economy that is already strained. The EU’s intervention is therefore much likely to be of benefit not only to the Syrians, but also to the region. The end to the conflict will herald better relations between the two regions and while at it, ensure the prosperity of the Syrian populace, as well as the restructuring of a country whose fabric is at the verge of being completely torn. Any military intervention will therefore be under the protect principle, an option which, given the current Chinese and Russian veto and third party interests such as Iran, is only possible through proxy engagements such as the Friends of Syria group. The purpose of the actions should therefore be towards the prevention of violence escalation, with the need for the Union to work more effectively in the alleviation of the humanitarian repercussions, and preparation for the post-Assad regime.
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Arango, Tim & Schmitt, Eric. “Escaped Inmates from Iraq Fuel Syrian Insurgency.” The New York Times, 2014, February 12. Web. 13 February 2014
Asseburg, Muriel. “Syria’s Civil War: Geopolitical Implications and Scenarios.” IE Med. Mediterranean Yearbook, 2013. Web. 13 February 2014
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Most sources online are biased towards the Assad regime. In essence, almost none of the sources have made a consideration to the reasons for Assad’s hold on power, as well as the reasons for the crackdown on dissidents against the government. In addition, there are widespread reports of how disorganized and unprepared the opposition is without regard to reasons for the differences among the opposition groups. Even more is that most sources have painted both China and Russia in bad light over their veto against humanitarian assistance in the Middle Eastern nation. The two countries remain apprehensive on humanitarian assistance, as it would become the roadmap to military intervention, as was the case in Libya, which has left a torn country in its wake.
While recommendations such as direct military intervention by the EU would quickly solve the problem given the strength of the Union’s military, the geopolitical intricacies at play would not allow for the recommendation of such an option. Not only would such an action bring problems among such powerful players such as China and Russia, but also threaten the peace of the whole middle eastern region. Such an option would also dwarf the economic and strategic interests of the EU given that the Union will be the target of Islamist extremists, already seeping into the EU. Thus, the intervention by proxy methods and lifting of the oil ban in the opposition zones offers the best option for the EU, shifting any direct blames on them.
Looking at a wider range of sources and synthesizing the most unbiased options within them proved helpful in getting the most unbiased recommendation for the Union. A critical look at each available option also provided requisite insight at the repercussions of each of the recommendations, and therefore the decision on the preferred recommendation.