Running into the sand? The EU's faltering response to the Arab revolutions

Running into the sand? The EU's faltering response to the Arab revolutions

Running into the sand? The EU's faltering response to the Arab revolutions

Written by Edward Burke, 18 December 2013

Obama w pułapce - Interview with Ian Bond

Obama w pułapce - Interview with Ian Bond

Obama w pułapce - Interview with Ian Bond

Written by Ian Bond, 01 September 2013
From Rzeczpospolita

Will Assad deliver for Putin?

Will Assad deliver for Putin?

Will Assad deliver for Putin?

Written by Rem Korteweg, with Judy Dempsey, 18 September 2013
From Carnegie Europe

Division and indecision over Syria

Division and indecision over Syria

Division and indecision over Syria

Written by Rem Korteweg, 18 September 2013


The deal on chemical weapons reached by Russia and the United States marks the latest chapter in the West’s effort to stay out of Syria’s civil war. After Russia’s diplomatic initiative, a military strike has been avoided. The White House says that diplomacy backed by a credible military threat has succeeded, and European leaders claim that their appeal for a UN process was heard. Obama’s wish to avoid military solutions may have created new momentum for negotiations with Iran. But this moment of jubilation could be short-lived: a daunting task at the UN awaits; military action may still be needed; and transatlantic cohesion has been damaged.

For more than two years, US and European governments have successfully navigated developments that could otherwise have formed a casus belli and led to Western entanglement in Syria. In the summer of 2012, the Syrian military shot down a Turkish air force jet, and was accused by Ankara of lobbing mortars over the Turkish-Syrian border and staging car bombings in southern Turkish towns. The attack on a NATO member-state could have triggered military action against Syria, but instead the alliance showed restraint and sent German, Dutch and US air defence batteries to southern Turkey.

In November 2012, France and the UK – followed a month later by the US  –  stated that President Assad no longer represented the Syrian people, but no action was taken to force a change of regime. The US and Europe have also long resisted arming the rebel groups. When it became clear in early 2013 that Assad was winning, the European Union – under French and British leadership – and the United States lifted the arms embargo. But the subsequent flow of arms to rebels has been limited, reflecting concerns that the weapons might end up with Al Qaeda affiliates. The US, UK and France have been providing jeeps and communications technology, and possibly small arms, but most heavier material, mortars and anti-tank weapons, are sent by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

The aftermath of the chemical weapons attack on August 21st is the closest the US and its allies have come to military intervention in Syria. If it were not for the use of poison gas, the US and others would have remained on the side-lines, but moral imperatives and presidential credibility required action, however reluctant. European division and US foot-dragging followed.

What makes the current crisis so uncomfortable and damaging for the West is that it is largely self-inflicted; Obama’s red lines on the use of chemical weapons, when crossed, forced his hand. European divisions have made matters worse, particularly when Britain’s prime minister David Cameron – initially in favour of a strike – deferred to the House of Commons and lost, while the French president remained committed to military action. Without a united Franco-British front, Germany, the Netherlands and others continued to prevaricate and say they had not been asked to support a military strike, or – like Poland – did not have relevant military capabilities. Other European states, including Italy, Spain and Belgium, believed the UN should act. Only Denmark backed the French.

Meanwhile, more than two weeks of intense diplomacy passed before the EU’s High Representative Catherine Ashton was able to forge a common European position. A carefully-worded statement agreed on September 7th said that “a clear and strong response is crucial” to the poison gas attack, but it fell short of calling for military action. Instead it urged the Security Council to push for a political solution.

A divided West was inching towards a military intervention for which there was little political appetite and even less public support. President Putin’s initiative to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons could be the ‘deus ex machina’ to avoid an unwanted military campaign.

While it is impossible to know for sure, Putin’s diplomacy may be informed by the fear that any US military involvement could decisively turn the tables on Assad. A shift in the military balance would cause Moscow to lose an ally in the region and perhaps its Mediterranean naval base, but Putin’s support for Assad is fuelled by the concern that Al Qaeda-linked groups might take over in Syria and could eventually spread to Russia.

In spite of comments by President Obama that a strike would be limited – or in Secretary Kerry’s words “unbelievably small” – any military action has unpredictable consequences. A strike was meant to ‘deter and degrade’ Assad’s capability to use chemical weapons. The US was aiming for a ‘Goldilocks’ intervention; too soft, and it would only be a symbolic punishment; too hard, and it might topple Assad, strengthening jihadist rebel groups. But reality is never so straightforward, and the adversary always has a vote in a conflict. Assad could make life difficult for any US-led coalition, for instance by using chemical weapons again; placing human shields around potential targets; or using Syrian-sponsored Hezbollah to strike Western assets or Israel. US credibility would then demand further escalation. By regaining diplomatic momentum, Putin was able to protect his interests, and his client in Damascus. Whatever the outcome, Moscow will have bought time for Assad, and Russia will step up its arms shipments to Syria, hoping to tilt the military balance in favour of Assad. The US, UK and France should consider balancing this by increasing their efforts to arm moderate rebels.

The agreement between Russia and the US will have to be enshrined in a UN Security Council resolution. France, the US and UK prefer a resolution under chapter 7 of the UN charter, which could allow the use of force in the event of non-compliance. But Russia has said an explicit reference to military action is unacceptable.

If the Russians stand firm, Obama will face a choice between a resolution without ‘teeth’, or circumventing the gridlocked Security Council. In the first case, the Russians and the Syrian regime will claim that UN-backed military enforcement is off the table; and Obama will be criticised by US hawks in Congress for weakness. But the outcome could be more ambiguous. During the Iraq crisis ten years ago, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1441, pushing Iraq to fulfil its disarmament obligations. It was adopted under chapter 7, but did not explicitly mention the use of force. The Security Council could pass a similar resolution now.

Washington and Moscow have an interest in agreeing a resolution because the alternatives are less palatable. But given the distance between the Russian and US positions, a face-saving compromise would leave the enforcement mechanism deliberately vague. In 2003, as Saddam Hussein continued to defy the UN weapons inspectors, this clause – and its lack of specificity – became the focus of a dispute in the Security Council. Unfortunately, a similar resolution on Syria will sow the seeds for future US-Russian disagreement. The technical obstacles associated with a verification mechanism in a war zone are plentiful, and if Syria breached the resolution, a fractured West could still end up being drawn into the conflict.

Nevertheless, if a resolution is adopted and the Syrians carry out their side of the bargain, this may do more than just prevent Syria’s future use of chemical weapons. Iran’s new moderate president, Hassan Rouhani – strengthened by a policy of US restraint in Syria – has signalled a willingness to talk to Obama. This positive momentum offers the best hope for some time to move diplomacy on Iran’s nuclear programme forward, and should be embraced by the US and Europe.

Progress on chemical weapons could also create some momentum for a general ceasefire and the start of a peace process. The EU ought to be able to unite around this goal, at least. It should now start working with Russia, the US, Iran as well as the groups in Syria to get the Geneva 2 negotiations underway in the hope of moving towards a political solution.

A stalemate at the UN would be damaging; Putin could say he produced an olive branch that the US was unwilling to accept, and paint Obama as a warmonger; while members of Obama’s own party and isolationist Republicans will accuse him of risking US entanglement in another war. The EU would find itself in an uncomfortable position. Fundamental to the EU’s foreign policy is support for international norms, of which the prohibition on chemical weapons is one (the 2003 EU security strategy describes the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as “potentially the greatest threat to our security”) and support for the United Nations is another. These conflicting norms would ensure that Europe remained divided.

The worst option for US credibility is if a resolution is not agreed and the United States shies away from military action. Credibility is an important currency in international relations. It would be seen as a victory in Damascus, Tehran and Moscow, it would sap the morale of Syria’s rebels and it would send a message that the use of chemical weapons may go unpunished. It would make Israel and Saudi Arabia uncertain about US assistance on Iran’s nuclear programme. Pyongyang’s hand would be strengthened, and among allies in the Asia-Pacific – where US security guarantees are considered crucial to check the rise of China – signs of US weakness would make leaders nervous. Western impotence in Syria will reduce America’s – and by extension the West’s – international standing, strengthening those that believe Western decline creates opportunities to expand their influence.

Deal or no deal, the crisis has negatively affected transatlantic relations. In 2011, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates complained publicly that Europe was not equitably sharing the burden of military risks and expenses. Not much has improved since then. In Libya, eight out of twenty-eight NATO allies participated in the bombing phase of the air campaign. Now an even smaller number of Europeans would stand by the US. Washington has not drawn upon NATO’s command headquarters or common surveillance assets (as happened in Libya) or even mentioned NATO. The US probably wanted to avoid bringing Europe’s division into the North Atlantic Council, where unanimous support would be needed. While much has been made of the US rebalance towards Asia and the consequent need for Europe to bear a greater burden for security in its neighbourhood, most of Europe is still passing the buck to Washington. Once again, the US and Russia get to sort out a security issue in Europe’s neighbourhood without Europe being at the table.

Rem Korteweg is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

Syria crisis reveals new paradigm

Syria

Syria crisis reveals new paradigm

By Ian Bond, 05 September 2013
From The New York Times

Link to press quote:
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/06/world/europe/syria-crisis-reveals-new-paradigm.html?_r=0

How France went from loner to leader on European defence policy

How France went from loner to leader on European defence policy spotlight image

How France went from loner to leader on European defence policy

By Rem Korteweg, 04 September 2013
From The Globe and Mail

Link to press quote:
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/how-france-became-obamas-best-friend-in-europe-on-defence-issues/article14117079/

While Britain votes No, France still backs strikes on Syria

While Britain votes No, France still backs strikes on Syria

While Britain votes No, France still backs strikes on Syria

By Ian Bond, 31 August 2013
From NPR

Link to press quote:
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=217641032

The Commons vote on Syria: The world turned upside down

The Commons vote on Syria: The world turned upside down

The Commons vote on Syria: The world turned upside down

Written by Ian Bond, 04 September 2013

Prime Minister David Cameron made a strong case for taking military action to punish the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons. Labour leader Ed Miliband said that he was willing to consider it. It took a combination of party political manoeuvring and a rebellion by Conservative isolationists to defeat the government on August 29th, ensuring that Britain would not join in any operation. The vote is already affecting the UK’s relationship with the US. It may also reduce still further Europe’s willingness to equip and train for conflicts outside its borders. It does not (yet) mean that Britain has pulled up the drawbridge, but it will make it harder for future governments to get involved in wars, even for noble causes.

The vote in the Commons did not necessarily reflect a majority against the principle of military action. Four hundred and ninety MPs voted to start a process that could lead to military action. But they were split: the government, with no support from Labour MPs, put forward one set of conditions that would have to be met; the Labour Party, with no support from the coalition’s MPs, proposed a slightly different set. Only 52 MPs voted against the use of force in any circumstances by opposing both the government and opposition proposals.

The main reason that the government lost was that 30 Conservative and 9 Liberal Democrat MPs voted against the government motion (with many others absent or not voting). There was a sense among the Conservative rebels that this was not Britain’s fight: comments included "Our job in this parliament is to look after our own people" and "The world needs to act. The world, however, does not equal the UK". There was a striking amount of criticism of the US, occasionally bordering on hostility, from some Conservatives.

A closer look at the 30 Conservative rebels is revealing: 26 of them also rebelled against the government and voted in favour of a referendum on the UK's EU membership in October 2011. In the past, many Conservative eurosceptics have favoured an Atlantic alternative of closer partnership with the US rather than the EU. There is now a significant group, however, for whom the choice is not between Europe and the open sea, but between (as they see it) the illusion of "punching above our weight" and the reality of being a medium-sized power with domestic problems to fix. Their position resembles that of the populist UK Independence Party, which – to quote their website – opposes "needless foreign adventures that don't directly affect us as a nation".

To judge from opinion polls, this scepticism about UK involvement in distant conflicts reflects the popular mood; but in the past national politicians have been more willing to ignore such sentiments in favour of maintaining Britain's status as a leading world power and defender of international norms. If the Prime Minister and Ed Miliband had been more confident that taking action was the right thing to do, they might have found it easier to agree on a motion that government and opposition could both back. As it was, the Prime Minister had no hesitation in confirming on the night of the vote that the government would abide by what he considered to be the will of Parliament: Britain would not take part in any military action against Syria. Ministers have been surprisingly ready to say that there will not be another vote unless circumstances change very significantly – almost as though defeat had come as something of a relief to them. It is not clear how bad things would have to get in Syria before they would revisit the issue.

While publicly the US administration has expressed understanding for the situation, in his speech on August 30th Secretary of State John Kerry pointedly left the UK out of a list of US allies in dealing with Syria. British military staff attached to US Central Command headquarters (from which any Syria operation will be run) are reportedly being excluded from discussions. It is certainly an exaggeration to speak of the demise of the special relationship – not least because the unique intelligence relationship between the UK and US will certainly continue. But at least since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Britain's willingness to turn up has been more important to the US than any practical military contribution it could make. If the UK loses the political will even to play a symbolic role in operations, that will certainly erode the basis of the relationship.

There is also a question of why President Obama has now decided to consult Congress before taking military action – something which clearly was not envisaged before the British vote. Was the President's position weakened by David Cameron’s defeat, so that he felt he had to give in to pressure from Congressional Republicans to offer them the same chance that British MPs had had to debate military action? Comments by White House officials suggest a degree of irritation with the British for starting down this road. If (as is possible) Obama fails to get the support of at least the House of Representatives, the administration may well put part of the blame on the British. Another CER Insight in the coming days will deal with other international implications of a possible strike on Syria.

Within Europe, the Commons vote threatens to undermine improving Franco-British ties on defence and security. David Cameron and Francois Hollande are not natural soul-mates, and Hollande did not initially share Nicolas Sarkozy's enthusiasm for defence co-operation with the UK. But Britain's willingness to provide modest logistical help in the initial stages of France's Mali operation earlier this year, and subsequent shared views on Syria (including on the question of partially lifting the EU's arms embargo to allow weapons deliveries to the opposition) had started to turn things round. This renewed alignment between the UK and France, and the embarrassment of failing to back them in Libya in 2011, seemed to be nudging Germany in the direction of supporting action in Syria (Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said on August 26th that if the use of chemical weapons were confirmed by UN inspectors, then Germany would "be among those who think that some consequence will have to be drawn"). After the British vote, and probably not by coincidence, Chancellor Merkel's spokesman seemed to rule out any German involvement, leaving France isolated as the only European country likely to join the US in military operations.

The British vote comes at an inconvenient time in the preparations for the December European Council discussion on European security and defence policy. The UK has been a keen promoter of increased European defence capabilities, particularly those such as strategic airlift which would enable European countries to play a more active part in expeditionary operations. But if reluctant partners believe, rightly or not, that the UK itself is losing the political will to undertake such operations, they are unlikely to respond to British pressure to spend more on such capabilities (though they may be relieved that the UK will no longer try to push them into wars at the behest of the US).

In NATO the vote may have an impact on the unresolved division between allies who believe that the alliance's main focus should be on territorial defence, and those who see the main threats to transatlantic security as global, not European, and want NATO to be able to act beyond its borders. Again, the UK's credibility as a strong supporter of an expeditionary outlook for NATO is likely to be reduced, while the position of countries like Poland (which has ruled out taking part in action against Syria and is more focused on security issues in its immediate neighbourhood) may be strengthened.

The Commons vote may turn out to have little long-term impact on the UK’s world view. Any response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons is hedged with uncertainty. If a limited strike fails to prevent the future use of nerve gas, what would the Western reaction be? What impact would a strike have on regional security? Would it destroy any hope of improving the West’s relations with the new president of Iran, making conflict more likely? Perhaps in other circumstances, with more clarity about the ramifications of action, a parliamentary majority could be found. Perhaps next time the government would do a better job of rounding up its members to vote. Perhaps next time the Labour Party, having exorcised the demons of 2003 and the decision to invade Iraq, could vote on the merits of the case when an atrocity needs to be punished.

But equally, the vote could turn out to be the signal for a strategic shift in favour of insularity. By voting – almost by accident – against even a modest military gesture, British MPs risk sending the message that in future the UK will be content to stay on the side-lines, regardless of what is happening in distant lands. For all the expressions of dismay from veteran statesmen like Tony Blair, former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind and former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown, public opinion seems happy with that; and current political leaders seem disinclined to court unpopularity by reiterating the case for interventionism. For a country with global economic and security interests, that is a risky position to take, and a bad example to set.

Ian Bond is director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform.

Comments

Added on 01 Oct 2013 at 16:25 by Anonymous

I agree with this analysis but would like to see an examination of the costs and benefits of our participation in expeditionary warfare. How does it help the UK to have a seat at the top table and to punch above our weight?

Added on 04 Sep 2013 at 14:47 by Anonymous

Brits should be very happy that The House Commons did not approve Cameron attack on Syria. I am not sure though if this means that the age old colonialist Britain is finally geting rid off this disease out of its system! Plese save your breath on arguing the detrimental consequences of this step on European (and American) "security" a baloney we have so often heard as pretext for oil robbery from Middle East and establishing "sheria" regimes in the Middle East so that the peoples of these countries keep their ignoramous state forever for the rich to exploit them till eternity.

Influencing Egypt with soft power

Influencing Egypt with soft power spotlight image

Influencing Egypt with soft power

By Rem Korteweg, 02 September 2013
From The New York Times

Link to press quote:
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/03/world/europe/What-Role-for-Europe-in-Egypt.html

Living in a state of seamless war

Living in a state of seamless war

Living in a state of seamless war

By Rem Korteweg, 29 August 2013
From The New York Times

Link to press quote:
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/30/world/europe/living-in-a-state-of-seamless-war.html?_r=0

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