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EU cannot get its Syrian act together

16 May 2013 - 17:18

Having learnt all the lessons of military folly in Iraq and Afghanistan, the West is now digesting the equivalent of a mediaeval taunting. As if beckoning a placid bear, the Syrian regime, still in place after over two years of conflict, strews abominations wherever it finds an opportunity, and then waits for foreigners’ reactions with a sinister giggle. The last fortnight alone has offered hints of the use of sarin gas, a campaign of sectarian massacres along the Mediterranean coast, and a spate of Israeli missiles. The weekend brought two massive car bombs in a Turkish border town, killing 46.

The West’s red lines are not so much traversed by events as bent into spaghetti shapes by the regime led by Bashar al-Assad. It takes considerable cruelty to turn popular civilian protests into civil war, as Assad managed. But it takes real diplomatic fluster to turn a civil war into a regional epidemic.

Although the US Secretary of State John Kerry this week pressed the Russians for an international conference on solving the Syria crisis — an event with so far no fixed date, nor apparent chance of success — Europe also bears a great onus of interest and responsibility. Just as Libya, and much more so than Mali, Syria may be considered its backyard; some 600 EU citizens are already estimated to have joined the ranks of extremist Islamist rebels; and nobody doubts that European aid resources will be crucial in any post-conflict rebuilding.

Yet Europe has merely watched and tinkered. And here we see how the eurozone crisis has spilled over into foreign policy in a curious fashion. It is not exactly budget cuts that restrict the room for intervention, for even a depressed France could muster in January a legionnaire expedition into the Sahara. Instead, the economic crisis has acted by osmosis.

Britain and France, watching colonial glory retreat with a tear in the eye, are already active in supporting rebels, and have pressed for an end to the EU arms embargo so as to funnel weapons to the insurgents. The response echoes British Prime Minister David Cameron’s magic solution for the euro: a “big bazooka.”

Germany, alongside the Scandinavian nations, will have none of it. Steeped in a post-war political culture which abhors militarism but adheres fanatically to international law, Germany has consistently argued against gun-toting heroics. It abstained in the UN Security Council vote in 2011 on establishing a euphemistic “no fly zone” over Libya. And after resisting the Anglo-French move to end the arms embargo at a summit in Brussels in March, Chancellor Angela Merkel let it be known she would not “fan the flames of conflict” in Syria. Reverberating in her remarks is the condition of southern Europe, left to rot by the German economic establishment because that is what the rules say in the single currency’s booklet.

Although the echo is of austerity’s purgatory, the comparison is somewhat unfair. Merkel and many other opponents of military intervention in Syria have sound reasons to offer, among which is the strong possibility that Western troops would be committed to action in a contagious conflict that could end up spawning a divide between Sunnis and Shias across the entire Arab region. The sectarian dynamic is already reigniting Lebanon and Iraq, scorching Turkey, spurring Israel into all manner of reprisals and could eventually lead all the way down the tripwire to that avatar of nuclear aspiration, Iran.

In the face of this dire prospect, the non-interventionist side represented by the German chancellor now comprises a swinger’s suite of bedfellows, including hard-left critics of Western imperialism, supporters of international law and institutions, however useless they may appear in the current quagmire, lovers of peace, and hardcore realists from the US military-industrial complex. As Robert Kaplan, one of these latter, wrote recently: “Let Iran get sucked deeper and deeper into the Syrian maelstrom, not the United States.”

Across the way, but with frequent traffic to and fro the opposing side of peaceniks and hawks, stand the supporters of intervention: progressive liberals, gun fetishists, neo-conservatives with a point to prove and Syrians who would clutch at anything that might end the bloodshed in their homeland.

These are not solid coalitions, and their disparate members might well find it hard to exchange even a pleasantry with a comrade. Nor does it seem that the passing of time, or the seemingly inevitable worsening of the conflict, will necessarily decide the argument. Certainly, it is getting harder to maintain that the conflict could get much worse after over 70,000 have already been killed.

But for the supporters of intervention, there remain daunting questions to address. One of these concerns the precise objective of an intervention, which should, by all logic, aim at regime change followed by transition — words that, thanks to George W. Bush, terrify their proponents more than they assure.

The other more immediate matter is the Syrian rebel cause, which experts on the subject break down into hundreds of separate armed brigades, some of them accused of war crimes and meddling in criminal sidelines.

Most importantly, the map of rebelpower on the ground would suggest that the original secular fighters are among the weakest. Salafist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which has recently announced it belongs to al Qaeda, have become highly influential brokers and warriors, while the new Syrian Islamic Front, which is fundamentalist but not actively seeking a world caliphate, is becoming a force for sense and moderation. No European diplomat would sleep any easier well after hearing that UN official Carla Del Ponte believed it was the rebels, not the government, who had used nerve gas.

One almost craves for the simplicity of a Bush-era war. The hydra of Syria tears asunder the maxims of both left and right: you cannot always make peace by not fighting. And you cannot always fight for freedom and fight the war on terror at the same time.