The conflict in Syria has now escalated to the point of all-out civil war, the Red Cross declared on Sunday. The Geneva Conventions governing the rules of “non-international” armed conflict will now come into effect across the country, and all sides (including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) are now potentially liable to war crimes prosecutions. The news comes as reports emerge of fierce fighting in the Syrian capital of Damascus between rebels and government forces.
Last month, we asked you how the EU should respond to the Arab Spring, including the question of ongoing violence in Syria. Sam sent in a comment that struck a fairly positive note: “I rate Europe 9 out of 10 when it comes to the way they responded to the Arab Spring. However, I still blame Russia for the violence in Syria; had they agreed with the rest of Europe then Assad would have been gone.“
Others, however, were adamant that the best approach was for Europe to keep out of the issue entirely. Catherine, for example, sent in a comment asking: “Can anyone explain why Europe should intervene at all? What does it have to do with us?“
We took these comments to Ernst Stetter, Secretary General of the centre-left Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS), for his reaction. Is Sam right to praise the European response, and should Russia shoulder most of the blame for the continued violence?
It’s not easy to be so optimistic. It’s a very difficult situation we are facing at the moment; we have just published, as FEPS foundation, a little booklet on the opposition factions within Syria, and there is a lot of division within Syria. We have to take care also of the situation in the whole region… There is a special role for Europe to play now in [the Middle East], and we have to look that this is not any more a simple question of Israel and Palestine, this is now a question of change in the whole region.
The FEPS booklet (Divided they stand: an overview of Syria’s political opposition factions) makes it clear that the “disunity” of the Syrian opposition is a “major obstacle to any peaceful resolution of the conflict.” What is more, it goes on to argue that the “international community’s slow response to the Syrian crisis was partly dictated by the realization that Syria’s weak and divided opposition groups could not – and still in 2012 do not – provide an effective alternative to the Assad regime.”
Last week Štefan Füle, European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, condemned the deaths so far in the Syrian conflict of “more than 17,000 people, the disappearance of around 67,000 people and the arbitrary detention of 200,000 people” adding that this “does not respect the very fundamental human right – immortalized by John Lennon – of all the people, living lives in peace.”
Commissioner Füle spelled out some of the measures the EU had already taken against Syria, including adopting 17 rounds of sanctions since May 2011; suspending all loans and technical assistance programmes to Syria; training pro-democracy activists in the country to circumvent internet censorship and protect themselves against government monitoring, and providing aid and humanitarian assistance to the Syrian population and refugees in neighbouring countries. The commissioner didn’t mention whether or not the EU planned, along the lines of EU member-state France, to start supporting the rebels more actively by supplying communications equipment.
As the Kofi Annan peace plan for Syria is systematically ignored by both sides and the conflict looks set to enter an even bloodier phase, international diplomacy remains deadlocked, bringing with it uncomfortable memories for the EU. Last week marked the 17-year anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia and Herzegovina, when, from 11 July until 22 July 1995, more than 8000 people were murdered whilst Europe looked on helplessly. Today, the European press is starting to wonder if we aren’t seeing history repeat itself.
What do YOU think? How would you rate Europe’s response to the conflict in Syria? Has Russia been the major obstacle? Or is the disunity of the Syrian opposition a major reason for the lack of progress? Should the EU stick to sanctions and humanitarian assistance, or should it follow the lead of some of its member-states and support the Syrian opposition more actively? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their response.
Ernst Stetter is Secretary General of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS). In 2003 he received the French decoration of Chevalier de l’Ordre national du Mérite.