Syria crisis reveals new paradigm


Syria crisis reveals new paradigm

Written by Ian Bond, 05 September 2013

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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

Written by Ian Bond, 31 August 2013

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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.


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

Written by Rem Korteweg, 02 September 2013

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Europe's struggle for influence in Egypt

Europe's struggle for influence in Egypt

Europe's struggle for influence in Egypt

Written by Rem Korteweg, 23 August 2013

Egypt tests Europe’s ability to influence events in its southern neighbourhood. In January 2011, the protestors in Tahrir Square brought down President Mubarak, despite lukewarm support from Western countries. After Mubarak’s removal from power, the EU adopted a new policy based on the ‘more for more’ principle; the more a country enacts democratic reforms, the more EU aid it can expect. In November 2012, after the elections that led to Mohamed Morsi’s brief presidency, the European Union announced a package of grants and loans totalling nearly €4.2 billion. The following week President Morsi announced his autocratic grab for Egypt’s constitutional powers. When European officials complained about the violation of religious or women’s rights in Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood officials would retort by pointing at rising Islamophobia in Europe. Now, in spite of intense American and European diplomatic pressure, the interim government has used disproportionate force to disperse the pro-Morsi sit-ins, killing more than 800. A cycle of violence has ensued as dozens of policemen and security officers have been killed in response. Egypt now balances on the precipice of further violent conflict.

Europe’s diplomatic relations with Morsi’s government were troubled, but things are no easier now. The liberals and the moderates in the current government  those that the EU and Washington considered allies  ‒  have either been co-opted or outflanked by the hardliners. Prime minister Hazem el-Beblawi, a liberal economist, supported the crackdown against the sit-ins and has suggested the Muslim Brotherhood’s licence to operate as a political party could be revoked. Another moderate and key interlocutor of the West, Mohamed ElBaradei, is no longer influential after he resigned in protest at the violence and even faces legal charges over that decision. Meanwhile, Tamarod, a grass roots protest movement which appeared to share Western values, is becoming more nationalist and has called for tearing up Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and an end to American military aid.

Following last week’s violence, the EU has decided to stop the sale of all ‘arms that can be used internally’. In practice the EU measure is likely to halt the export of small arms, munitions and possibly armoured personnel carriers. The army and police are too powerful for the EU’s decision to influence the internal balance of power. And if the Egyptian military run out of guns and bullets, there are many more suppliers able to replenish its stocks. Given the proliferation of arms from places like Libya, the same also holds true for the Islamists. And so, the EU’s decision will do little to bring the parties back to the table. It seems calculated to make clear that Europe disapproves of the violence, but not of the new regime.

If it had wanted to make a stronger point, the EU could have suspended aid, withdrawn its ambassadors, made a common demarche on the Egyptian ministry of foreign affairs or slapped economic sanctions on the assets and movements of senior government or military officials. Of course, the EU could still do all these things, but it seems unwilling to antagonise the Egyptian government. Egypt is too important for several European interests; a secure Suez Canal, enduring Arab peace with Israel and the fight against militant Islam.

Behind closed doors US and European security and intelligence communities will have welcomed Morsi’s replacement by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Morsi’s government looked the other way while lawlessness flourished in the Sinai peninsula. Militants have bombed the natural gas pipeline to Israel and Jordan thirteen times in the past two years. The peninsula has become a conduit for Libyan arms to Hamas and Syria’s rebel groups (intelligence agencies have been particularly concerned about the spread of shoulder-fired missiles that can shoot down helicopters and planes). In the Sinai, there are nearly daily attacks against the police and army (in mid-August 24 police officers were killed in an ambush). Despite their restrictions on arms exports, most European governments probably hope that Egyptian security forces have enough weapons to reimpose order in Sinai.

But the overthrow of Morsi is unlikely to bring peace. Al Qaeda’s chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has called on his followers to resist the interim government in Cairo. The Egyptian economy is on life support. Sectarian attacks on Coptic Christians and their churches have increased. The Suez Canal – a maritime chokepoint that carries roughly 8 per cent of global seaborne trade  ‒  is at risk. This puts Europe in the uncomfortable position of giving preference to its security interests over its liberal values, without being sure that it can protect either.

The larger story of Europe’s pursuit of influence in Egypt relates to the changing balance of power in its southern neighbourhood. With America unwilling to get involved, European countries have tried, with mixed success, to take the lead on issues in Libya, Mali and Syria. In Egypt the EU now finds itself competing with the Gulf countries for influence. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE – primarily concerned with domestic support for the Muslim Brotherhood – have welcomed the assault on the Brotherhood and have given the interim government a cheque worth $12 billion, almost €9 billion.  Reasoning that Cairo, if it wanted, could simply ignore Europe and rely on the Gulf states, the EU has decided to keep its aid and trade relationship intact. It is betting that by denouncing the violence, stopping arms sales but maintaining other ties, Brussels will be able to keep doors in Cairo open.

One positive for the EU in the Egyptian crisis is that member-states are allowing Catherine Ashton to coordinate EU policy. She was the first European leader to visit Egypt after the fall of Mubarak, and the only senior foreign official to have visited Morsi after his detention. This gives her credibility in Europe and in the region. European governments should mandate Ashton, and the EU’s Special Representative for the region, Bernardino Leon, to coordinate efforts with the Gulf states and the US and reach out to the interim government to help establish a national political dialogue.

Europe’s influence also relies on the power of its markets. Europe’s aid package is less than half of the Gulf states’ financial commitment, but Egypt needs foreign investment and deeper trade relations, rather than a line of credit. Once stability has been restored, the EU should be prepared to help the country deal with its vicious cycle of unemployment, inflation, capital flight, rising debts, falling currency reserves and increasing budget deficit (running at roughly 12 per cent of GDP) by further opening its markets to Egyptian goods. In time, the Egyptian government will have to reduce its subsidies on fuel and bread – actions that could spark popular unrest. The EU has also made macro-financial assistance to Egypt – worth €500 million – conditional on the successful negotiation of an IMF loan. European leaders should continue to push the interim government to strike a deal even though the political environment is not ready for this yet.

While the Brotherhood is suppressed, the military is the most organised political institution in the country. Under current conditions, a rush to the ballot box would almost certainly mean victory for the military’s candidate, perhaps al-Sisi himself, and enrage the Brotherhood’s supporters. At a conference in Cairo in March, one of the speakers, since elevated to a very senior position in government, said that if Morsi’s government failed, it would mean the bankruptcy of political Islam in Egypt. His words now read like a policy prescription. The interim government has detained 75 senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Morsi himself. Under the existing electoral law, given their criminal indictments, many of the Brotherhood’s leadership would not be eligible to participate in the elections. By purging the Brotherhood, General al-Sisi hopes to stop his opponents from playing a meaningful role in Egypt’s politics.

The EU has an interest in a pluralist democracy, not in military rule sanctioned through quick elections. However difficult it may be, to give the opposition parties a fair chance it would be sensible to gather all parties (including the Brotherhood) in a process that lets them determine the timing of the elections. The recently created European Endowment for Democracy could also use its admittedly limited funds to support some of Egypt’s nascent political parties.

If the military insist on pushing the Brotherhood underground, however, this is likely to create security problems of its own. As avenues for democratic participation are closed to the Brotherhood, the likelihood increases that its supporters will resort to violence (as happened in Algeria in 1991 when the military intervened to deprive Islamists of their election victory, sparking civil war). The Brotherhood’s hardliners will gain influence, condemning the US and Europe as anti-Islamic and hypocritical for condoning the overthrow of a democratically elected government. The Brotherhood could also reverse its earlier renunciation of violence. Political Islam in Egypt would become more anti-Western and less amenable to democratic ideas, opening the way for a rise in violent extremism, including against Western interests, in a region that is rife with conflict. Tragically, Europe’s access to Cairo’s powerbrokers would then become even more important, even as its policy choices become more unpalatable.

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

How the EU can help Kerry with Israeli and Palestinian peace talks

How the EU can help Kerry with Israeli and Palestinian peace talks

How the EU can help Kerry with Israeli and Palestinian peace talks

Written by Clara Marina O'Donnell, 07 August 2013

As soon as US Secretary of State John Kerry announced the resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the EU promised to do everything it could to support the new American initiative. The Middle East peace process has been a top EU priority for years. But Europeans are conscious that they lack the diplomatic clout to be a major player. Palestinians and Israelis think that EU member-states are too frequently divided among themselves. Many Israelis also argue that even though the EU and Israel have close ties, the Union does not give sufficient importance to their security concerns. Nevertheless, Europeans played a modest role in helping the US convince Israelis and Palestinians to sign up to new talks. And the EU can make further contributions to the peace process.

In July, as Secretary Kerry negotiated assiduously with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to give peace talks another chance, the EU high representative for foreign affairs Catherine Ashton announced that the EU would no longer give grants and scholarships to companies and educational institutions based in Israeli settlements. In addition, a leaked letter from Ashton detailed EU plans to require products from settlements to be labelled as such when sold in the EU. The Union, which has long argued that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law, had been working on both initiatives for a while. But the timing of the announcement and the leaked letter helped in a small way to convince both President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu to agree to peace talks.

Of course, the Obama administration was the key driver behind Abbas and Netanyahu’s endorsements of new negotiations. But according to European officials, the Palestinian president felt emboldened by the fact that the EU was willing to put international pressure on Israel. Israel, for its part, is always worried about being isolated. Netanyahu asked Kerry to convince the EU to revisit the decisions on the settlements. But Kerry told Netanyahu that he would not ask the EU to back down, and that unless Israel took part in peace talks, Tel Aviv risked similar action by other countries in the future. According to officials, the exchange between Kerry and Netanyahu weighed on the Israeli prime minister’s decision to support negotiations.

The EU helped the Americans coax the parties to the negotiating table because it has some economic leverage over them. Israel has an association agreement with the EU, and so many of its exports to Europe benefit from preferential trade terms. The Union disburses research funds and scholarships to Israeli industry and universities. And the EU is the largest donor to the Palestinians. In recent years, the European Commission and member-states have together provided €500 million a year. Amongst other things, this money has helped Palestinians develop the institutions required to function as an independent state – though more Palestinian nation-building will be needed before a two-state solution can be viable. The EU’s economic weight could be of significant help to both Israelis and Palestinians if they reached a peace deal. European states could help stabilise the region through further aid and trade concessions. The EU is already reflecting on how it could deepen bilateral ties with Israel in response to the progress in the peace process, a move the Israeli authorities greatly welcome.

Europe could also help the negotiations by making clear that if a deal was reached it would offer peacekeepers to prevent violence. Over the years, a number of European politicians have raised this possibility. Europeans already provide peacekeepers to UN monitoring missions along the Lebanese and Israeli border, and the Golan Heights. But if Europeans want their offer to be credible, they need to reassure Israelis and Palestinians that their peacekeepers would not be passive observers. Instead European troops would be given a mandate to use force if necessary to stop outbreaks of violence. EU states have sometimes imposed limitations on what troops or police forces can do when deployed, for a variety of reasons including minimising the risks to personnel. This was the case for example during an EU police monitoring mission along the border between Gaza and Egypt between 2005 and 2007. As a result, Israel never felt the mission was credible.

Finally, and controversially, the EU can support the peace effort by helping to bring Hamas into the process. The militant group, regarded by the EU, US, Israel and many other countries as a terrorist organisation, has been in sole control of Gaza for six years. Hamas, which frequently clashes militarily with Israel, is popular among Palestinians in the West Bank as well as in Gaza. Without its endorsement President Abbas will be incapable of reaching a durable peace settlement with Israel. In recent years, Egypt, Qatar and several EU governments have grudgingly reached this conclusion. Qatar and Egypt – even under former President Hosni Mubarak – have tried unsuccessfully to reconcile the warring Palestinian factions. The EU has made clear that it would be willing to work with a Palestinian unity government which included Hamas, if President Abbas were comfortable with the deal and Hamas renounced violence.

The need to include Hamas in a peace deal is also recognised by some Israeli officials, including former heads of Mossad – the Israeli national intelligence agency – and by some in the US government. During her last year in office, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked her department to work out how to engage with the militant group. But the US government is unlikely to stop boycotting Hamas, given strong Congressional opposition to the organisation.

If the talks between Netanyahu and Abbas develop into something meaningful, Secretary Kerry should make use of Europe’s willingness to engage with Hamas. With the consent of President Abbas and the Israeli government, the US should discreetly encourage the EU to make the public case for including Hamas in the peace negotiations.

Even with a co-ordinated transatlantic effort, the prospects for the nascent peace initiative are not good. Not only must Hamas and President Abbas’ Fatah party be reconciled for any Palestinian state to work, but Netanyahu will also have to ensure his coalition supports a deal (and he would then probably have to win a referendum on withdrawal from many of the West Bank settlements); meanwhile many of the Arab countries whose support will be essential, above all Egypt, are in turmoil. Hezbollah could seek to re-establish its credibility in the Middle East – damaged by its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad – through a new military confrontation with Israel. More generally, spill-over from the Syrian conflict could destabilise both Lebanon and an increasingly fragile Jordan. But the talks are worth pursuing, with strong EU backing: if they fail, it is unclear how long Mahmoud Abbas can remain Palestinian president, and few other Palestinian politicians are as supportive of a negotiated peace. Secretary Kerry would probably have preferred a better hand of cards on taking office. But the next hand could be even worse.

Clara Marina O'Donnell is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

Issue 90 - 2013

Bulletin - 90

Issue 90 June/July, 2013

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Bulletin Issue 90
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A Balkan map for the road to Damascus?

A Balkan map for the road to Damascus?

A Balkan map for the road to Damascus?

Written by Ian Bond, 24 May 2013

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