The EU and the Syrian Conflict: A Call to End European Freeriding

"My dear compatriots, the wishes that I present to you for the new year do not look like any of those which preceded them, since we just had a terrible year. Behind the tears [France] stood still. She showed the strength of her values, those of the Republic. But I owe you the truth. We are not finished with terrorism. As President, it is my duty to protect you by acting at the root of evil in Syria and in Iraq."

-Francois Hollande, December 31st 2015


The President of France’s traditional New Year address, normally a speech of joy and reflection on the past year, transformed into a speech of war which reflected on some of the darkest moments in French modern history. Two months after the Paris attacks and French MP Manuel Valls’ announcement that France is at war, the country that was struck at its core in 2015 is determined to intensify its operations in Syria.

If France wants to achieve its goals in Syria, however, it needs the European Union (EU) to consolidate as an independent fighting force. A united EU coalition against ISIS would both detach the pursuit of European objectives from those of the United States, and act as a buffer between the US and Russia, facilitating the cooperation needed to put an end to ISIS.

As part of his battle plan, President Hollande requested the help of the EU member states to fight terrorism. He sought to intensify attacks in Syria through the "mutual defense" clause outlined in Article 42.7 of the EU Treaty, which stipulates that when a member state is the victim of an armed aggression on its territory, others should do anything in their power to provide assistance and aid. This request is unprecedented.

Despite the fact that the European Parliament in Strasbourg voted on January 21st to assist France, each state is free to choose what kind of assistance it will give. In other words, states will be able to dodge direct engagement in Syria by offering humanitarian or "civil aid". And indeed, many EU officials are hesitant to directly engage ISIS, and feel that such action is best left to the American-led NATO.

While it is significant that the EU has recognized that force is needed in the fight against ISIS, they are ignoring the fact that engaging in Syria on the terms of the US-run NATO undermines the foreign policy goals of the EU.

NATO’s original purpose as an alliance between Europe and the US was to prevent the Soviets from extending their influence beyond the Iron Curtain. Under this arrangement, Western European interests were largely subordinated to the larger geopolitical goals of the United States, and this unequal relationship between the US and Europe persists to this day (even though the Cold War ended twenty-five years ago). The EU is long overdue to rise up into a position where it can bring a unique contribution to the international community. An independent EU, acting with strength internationally, can work to mediate conflict between the US and Russia in newly emerging proxy war zones. The European Union, a voice of 28 different states and the region with the largest GDP in the world, should take up this responsibility and begin the integration of its armed forces.

Europeans are experts in war and peace, and are uniquely qualified to act as mediator between the often diverging foreign policy objectives of the US and Russia. Pax Europeana, or the period between the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (the predecessor of the EU) and the implosion of Yugoslavia, represents the longest period in history without conflict on European soil. The EU has received worldwide acclaim for this long term peace, and received the Peace Nobel Price in 2012.

What created this peace? The integration of strategic resources and agricultural policies, the disestablishment of EU tariffs imports, and the free circulation of EU citizens.

And yet, the EU has failed to integrate its foreign policy. This failure has deprived Europe from reacting with force, and has left "global security housekeeping" to other hegemons like the United States, leaving Russia feeling insecure — and as a result, aggressive. The conditions under which the peoples of ex-Yugoslavia fought against each other underline Europe’s utter incapacity in acting with a cohesive foreign policy. While the weakening of European countries’ sovereignty to the European Union is often discussed, the weakening of the European Union’s global presence is a bigger issue. The EU needs to be able to pursue its interests on the global stage, and for that to happen, it needs a cohesive foreign policy. Indeed, in the face of ISIS’s threat, there has never been greater urgency.

The conflict in Syria is a prime example of where an independent EU could step in and make a difference. In the absence of a strong EU to moderate between Russia and the US, Vladimir Putin has consistently blamed the US for threatening Russia internationally and thereby ends up acting aggressively in proxy conflicts, like in South Ossetia, Ukraine, and recently, Syria. A militarily united EU, acting as a third major power alongside the US and Russia, would be able to moderate Russia’s actions, thereby facilitating the creation of a multilateral agreement in the fight against ISIS.

Despite a ceasefire negotiated in Geneva early last month, the situation on the ground has not improved, and is still at risk for another outbreak of violence. Currently, Russia and the US support opposite sides of the Syrian Civil War. Russia is determined to prop up the Assad regime, while the US continues to provide arms and intelligence to what they view as "moderate" rebels against Assad. In doing so, however, they are wasting precious resources that could be dedicated to the fight against the Islamic State. A EU led coalition could help forge an agreement that would put aside the pro- and the anti-Assad conflict in order to deal with the region’s true threat, ISIS.

The year 2015 demonstrates that the Syrian conflict is no longer a local conflict between a despotic government and its people. The Paris attacks are representative of the threat that ISIS poses to states beyond Syria. The Paris attacks have made one thing clear: ISIS is a serious threat. Like a sticky poison, it can ooze across our open borders. Their sole mission is to cleanse the world from its infidels in the name of the upcoming apocalypse. All of them. Anywhere.

Europe can no longer afford to ride upon NATO’s coattails. It is now necessary to call the European Union to action, and to commit it to international stability for the sake of the common good.

Maximilien Azorin

Maximilien is a French student at UBC. He studies International Relations, Russian, and Management, and works with his French MP at the Conseil de Circonscription de la Jeunesse.

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