The ‘Return of Geopolitics’ and the Revival of Russia?

The Case of Syria

Since Daesh raised out of the troubles of the Syrian civil war and it established as an international actor, the Western respond was clear: the defeat of the terror group and the replacement of the Syrian government. Nevertheless, the US-led coalition had difficulties to agree on a reliable strategy for the future and the military mission, the Russian government rejected all attempts to overthrow the Syrian government. Furthermore, military efforts helped – deliberately or unintentionally – the Syrians’ regime to stabilize. The Russian engagement is one of the first major foreign interventions outside the territory of the former Soviet Union. Immediately, Russian engagement raised the question of the return of geopolitical strategies and the struggle of major powers. This brief essay will outline, why Russian intervention in Syria cannot be seen as the raise of geopolitics by outlining younger approaches on this topic, Russian foreign policies and its development in Syria. „The ‘Return of Geopolitics’ and the Revival of Russia?“ weiterlesen

Inaction in Syria and its consequences

When in late February 2017 the Astana process called for more peace in Syria, the European Union (EU) was outside of the negotiation table. Above all Russia, but also Turkey and Iran, brought the Syrian government and representatives of the armed opposition groups back on the table. Even UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, and US Ambassador to Kazakhstan, George Krol, were only allowed to participated as observers. How long the agreed ceasefire will last, must be evaluated, but it is a first step for further direct talks. The Astana Process stands in a long row of peace talks organized by different organizations, but for the first time all parties involved were included.

From the very beginning of the conflict the EU tried to influence the outcome of a rebellion unleashing the most efficient and feared terror group, Daesh. The by the EU in 2016 presented Global Agenda promised, “we will foster dialogue and negotiation over regional conflicts such as those in Syria and Libya.” (EU 2016: 34)

In the following I will outline briefly steps taken by the EU to intervene in the Syrian conflict with an interim conclusion that the EU has largely been inactive. In a second step, I will analyse two direct effects of passiveness in Syria.

EU engagement in Syria
Although US strikes against the Syrian government were discussed (Rosniey 2013: 5), from the beginning, it was clear that the EU is not in favour of any NATO-led military operation (Gowan 2012). Security concerns over the stability in the region were predominating concerns of human rights violations.

One factor was the unclear internal situation: Although ruled authoritarian, Western officials were optimistic to convince the regime for some concessions. “Assad made some gestures in this direction but opted to unleash the army on protestors instead.” (Gowan 2012) The political opposition was scattered and with unclear loyalties.

Further, doubts were raised how Turkey and Israel were acting. For a long time, Turkeys borders were officially closed for Syrians and de facto open for fighters and assistance of Daesh. Kurdish involvement in the conflict and a strengthen Kurdish autonomy movement both in Syria and Turkey, raised fears of an own Kurdish state. All initiatives supporting Kurds in Northern Syria might raise tensions with Turkey. On the other hand, the conflict in Syria had huge impacts on unstable states, such as Lebanon. Many fighters for the Syrian government were recruited in the neighbouring state. Any involvement might confront Western military with Lebanese militias. An aggravating factor were the unclear role, Iran and Saudi-Arabia have taken. All military action might provoke tensions with and among both aspiring powers. With Iran, the West was dealing for an agreement over its nuclear facilities, a prestigious project and major security concern. Saudi-Arabia is a longstanding partner of the West. Any situation, worsening cooperation with the ultra-conservative rules monarchy could have unforeseeable consequences.

While in the case of Libya, the Arab League requested international assistance for a military solution, some members had doubts in the case of Syria. But while many states supported international military intervention, Russia and China “have consistently warned against intervention in Syria, as have the IBSA countries (India, Brazil and South Africa). All these powers felt that they were outmanouevred by the US and its European allies over Libya, and have treated Syria as a chance to reassert their influence.” (Gowan 2012)

Under these circumstances, the European Union does not have ongoing missions or operations in Syria. Nevertheless, since 2015 the EU is part of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG). The 25 members of ISSG working closely with the UN Special Envoy to Syria and is in fully support of the UN Security Council Resolution 2254: “The High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini, upon invitation by the European Council, continues her outreach to key actors in the region on a political transition and on preparations for post-conflict reconciliation and reconstruction once a political transition is in place, in line with the work of the UN Special Envoy.” (EU 2016: 1) Mechanisms used by the Union were: (1) Sanctions, such as travel bans and freezing assets of members benefiting from the Assad regime and continuing the suffering of the civil society. (2) Restrictive measures include the prohibition of trading with Syrian organization such as banks or petroleum products and the import of firearms or other material that can be used for repression. Furthermore, the EU strategy counts on appeals to all conflict parties “for an end to the unacceptable violence in Syria, which continues to cause the suffering of millions of Syrians and immeasurable destruction of infrastructure. Attacks on cultural heritage are also an unfortunate consequence of the conflict. The EU continues to condemn in the strongest terms the continuing violence and the widespread and systematic violations of human rights.” (ibid: 2) Additionally, financial efforts were undertaken, to respond to the crisis and to provide humanitarian assistance in Syria and neighbouring countries.

The sanctions had impacts and put pressure on the regime in Damascus. “[..]the damage to the economy has created strains within the regime.” (Gowan 2012) Nevertheless, a discordant acting international community delayed any further impacts. Observer missions in Syria were deployed with a weak mandate and diplomatic skirmishes. “[..] the UNSC was split over the terms of the mandate, with the West only willing to back a transition and the Russians wanting a power-sharing compromise.” (Hinnebusch, Zartman et al: 18)

Despite low international support of former missions, the ISSG agreed on a timeline for further diplomatic efforts of a settlement of the conflict. Within 18 months, democratic elections should take place, marking the end of the political transition. Indeed, in February, a ceasefire lasts for 24 hours. Though, tensions increased again and violence continued. In the meantime, Russia started – on behalf of the Syrian government – to intervene. With military help, the Assad regime could stabilize.

While fighting continued, the civil population tried to flee the country. All political and military efforts could not stop the suffering, more than 4.9 million people tried to escape. Most the people were hosted by surrounding states, but with collapsing sovereignty, as many people as never before tried to reach the EU. Whereas Russia creates precedents, the EU is overshadowing diplomatic failures by securing its borders.

Two actions could therefore be identified as direct consequences of the EU’s passive part in Syria: The EU-turkey Statement and Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean.

EU-Turkey Statement
The enormous raised number of unauthorized migrants to the EU seemed to weaken an already tattered Union. The political sentiment was fractured, while the one side claimed for moral responsibility and the other called for harder actions. Especially, countries of the Balkan and in Eastern Europe called for direct actions. Though, not in Syria, but at the borders of the EU. The short distance between Greece and Turkey motivated thousands of people to cross the passage. To stop the influx, the EU agreed on a deal with Turkey. For every Syrian being returned to Turkey from the Greek Islands, another Syrian will be resettled from Turkey to the EU. The statement reenergized Turkey EU membership talks and included Visa facilitations for Turkish nationals (though, it was never implemented).

The deal bases on two wrong assumptions: Signed in March 2016, the EU was optimistic that diplomatic efforts could proceed fast and that negations would lead to an end of the conflict. Nevertheless, Syrian support was more effective in keeping Assad in power than opponent forces could replace him. Refugees still tried to escape to Europe, increasing the pressure on European states by being dependent on Turkey’s willingness to preserve European states from more arriving refugees. The second wrong assumption was tactical. As the EU need an instrument to elude dependency, it was assumed, that EU membership is still attractive the Turkey. Since at least Turkey is drifting ore and more towards an authoritarian regime, it is obviously, that Turkey is not further interested in joining the EU. The EU has no instrument in pressuring Turkey, vice versa, Turkey uses the refugee statement as instrument for political pressure (Hurriyet Daily News 2017).

The statement weakens the standing and the political influence of the EU in its efforts shaping Syria.

EU NAVOR MED Operation Sophia
Like many North African countries, Libya has been a long-standing partner of the EU in the past, fighting unauthorized migration. Though, when the so called Arab Spring reached Libya, many EU member states supported immediate actions against the Ghaddafi regime. Not backed by Russia and China, the engagement was successfully in removing the regime but not enduring. Since them, the state is de facto a failed state with many groups fighting for power and control. The developments in Libya, although much closer to Europe, were hardly recognised by the EU. Nevertheless, the experience in Libya in mind, the EU was in Syria– amongst reasons mentioned above – more carefully. But while the EU was too much focused on Syria, it the situation in Libya worsened. Further, all efforts were concentrated on Syria, while capacities and the political will was lacking to deal with a second failed state. Furthermore, undetermined acting in the case of Syria, weekend once again the possibilities of the EU. Lacking will and possibilities easing the situation in Libya and further, Operation Sophia was launched to tackle the symptoms of a more defensive than pro-active EU. “Maybe […] a security based approach is easiest. It is more difficult to develop a plan and activities to integrate Sub-Saharan migrants than to eject them.” (UN official cited in Wunderlich 2013: 422)

Operation Sophia is developed to “undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and dispose of vessels and enabling assets used or suspected of being used by migrant smugglers or traffickers, in order to contribute to wider EU efforts to disrupt the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks […]” (EEAS 2016: 1) It is further designed within the EU’s comprehensive efforts tackling conflicts and other pull-effects for migration.

Operation Sophia was launched in June 2015, when conflict resolution in Syria was unpromising. Additionally, the World Food Program released in June 2015 a statement, stating, “being forced to implement deeper cuts in food assistance for vulnerable Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan because of a severe lack of funding.” (WFP 2015) More than $138 were missing, while the Operation Sophia was agreed on budget of €11.82. A low-cost alternative, that is missing the point. “Even unpicking the business model of the smugglers does not address the core problem – that is, the fact that people are migrating from all over Africa and the Middle East because of conditions in their own countries.” (Roberts 2015)

It has been shown, that the European Union is an actor in Syria. Nevertheless, its acting is not strengthening the position of the European Union as a provider of security and humanity, neither is the approach by the European Union improving the situation of the Syrian population. Efforts have been undertaken, but these efforts are not appropriate in the scale of the crisis. Therefore, it is reasonable to argue, that the EU is inactive in Syria.



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Hinnebusch, R. and Zartman, I. W., et al. (2016): UN Mediation in the Syrian Crisis: From Kofi Annan to Lakhdar Brahimi. International Peace Institute, March 2016. New York.
Hurriyet Daily News (2017): Turkey blasts Greece for releasing coup soldiers. Last accessed: 05.02.2017.
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