Syria Crisis: Full-Fledged Image of Security Challenges Facing European Union
Behzad Ahmadi Lafuraki
Director of international relations at Tehran International Studies & Research Institute
During the recent days two important developments have taken place within the European Union (EU) with regard to the ongoing crisis in Syria. The first development was the failure of the foreign ministers of EU member states during their meeting in the Belgian capital, Brussels, on May 27, 2013, to reach an agreement on the extension of a ban on sending weapons to Syria militants. As a result of their failure, the embargo on sending arms to the foreign-backed militants in Syria was automatically revoked. The second development was a concerted effort launched by the UK and France in order to document the use of the nerve gas, sarin, by the government of Syria against the foreign-backed militants and send the relevant documents to the United Nations. Both the above developments are important for various reasons. The first development is of significance because it paves the way for the dispatch of heavy weapons to Syria militants by the European countries and also gives legitimacy to the efforts made by the governments of France and UK in this regard. The second development is aimed at showing the international community that the government of the incumbent Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has already crossed the red line set for it by the United States and Britain. The natural outcome of both measures is increased possibility of a military strike against Syria by certain members of the European Union, led by France and Britain. Regardless of the nature and dimensions of that possible military intervention, the question which arises here is how probable such an attack could be? If the intervention actually takes place, what part will be played in it by the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)? And is the EU basically capable of launching military intervention against countries around it without support from the United States? If, by any chance, such an intervention is undertaken, would the EU be able to tolerate and manage its consequences? The rest of this article will make an effort to give answers to these questions through analysis of the EU’s relations with the United States within the framework of NATO.
“Financial crisis” and “Pivot to Asia” Achilles’ heel of trans-Atlantic relations
Since the end of the Cold War period, the margin of difference between the United States’ military power and that of its European allies has gradually but steadily increased. At present, the United States spends as much as 4.7 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defense expenses while the corresponding figure for most other member states of NATO is less than 2 percent of their GDPs. Although the American officials have at times taken the European states to task for the existing difference between the two sides’ military expenses and low defense budget of most European countries, that criticism was not very substantial for either side. However, at present, there are three reasons which explain why the issue of divvying up the costs and responsibility of NATO operations as well as the rift between the United States and Europe in this regard has become more important compared to the past. The first reason includes growing threats faced by the United States which are no more of European origin and NATO members cannot be of any effective assistance to the United States in its effort to eliminate such emerging threats. The second reason is that the US Army is no longer in need of launching wars of coalition in view of its great advances and experiences it has gained through various wars. The situation has changed so strikingly that working with the past allies has become even cumbersome for the United States Army. The third and more important reason, however, is that the economic austerity policies are being taken more seriously, not only in Europe, but also in the United States, and it takes a lot of time to implement all of them. Therefore, the United States is especially determined to reduce its unnecessary, but costly military responsibilities in Europe and prevent the European countries from having a good time at the expense of Washington. The behavior of the European countries has been influential in this regard because gradual reduction in their defense budget has prompted the United States to take retaliatory measures.
The final result of these differences came to the surface in Libya. In fact, NATO operations in Libya opened a new chapter in the life of this organization, which showed to the world that it is quite possible for the United States not to take the lead in military operations of the alliance and, like many other member states, stay out of the direct conflict by providing collateral assistance and operational logistics. In other words, the war on Libya clearly proved that the role of the United States within NATO is changing from its previously leading position because the United States is no more willing to take the lead in any military operations and limits its engagement to the level that is necessary to prevent the failure of its allies.
In addition to reducing its military role, the United States has been also toning down its diplomatic involvement in various regional crises. During the political crises in Libya, [the West African country of] Mali, and Syria, although the United States has been still playing the part of a key partner, it has not appeared as a political and strategic leader anymore. As a result, the role played by France and the UK in strengthening defense and security policies of the European Union has been on the rise and these two countries are expected to set out the general layout of any future operations. However, there is no guarantee that even France and the UK will assume the leadership of all future operations of NATO in areas located in the periphery of Europe, but due to operational differences and political distinctions among those operations, every military operation may have its own leader.
In addition to reducing military and diplomatic role of the United States, there is another important factor at work in the form of the rising military power of Russia. In fact, the Europe is getting increasingly involved in developments in its periphery at a time that its defense budget is seeing drastic cuts, on the one hand, while Russia’s military power is steadily on the rise, on the other hand. This means that Europe is not powerful enough to get engaged in anther conflict in Syria and is more trying to reserve its military forces and resources for the rainy day when it would need them to confront the aforesaid Russian factor. European countries will also need such reserves for the purchase of unmanned aerial vehicles, exchange of information, as well as the establishment of operational and telecommunication centers.
The ongoing crisis in Syria clearly proves that the European Union has not yet found a correct answer to the question about its reaction to such crises as the one in Syria and how it is planning to overcome challenges that emanate from these crises. The following points, however, seem to be self-evident:
1. As a result of the ongoing economic crisis in Syria and the shift in global power, the European defense policy is facing fundamental changes as big as the changes it underwent at the end of the Cold War period. The US President Barack Obama’s reluctance about going on with Washington’s interventionist policy of the past in addition to the European Union’s inability to rein in the euro crisis have further increased the impact and extent of these changes. As a result, the trans-Atlantic alliance as well as the European Union’s collective and national defense policies are changing. The change is still in the offing. As the US presence in Asia becomes more pronounced, NATO will gradually turn into a regional military organization missioned to defend the European countries and, in a best-case scenario, to also defend countries close to Europe. As a result, the role of the European countries in future operations of NATO will be equivalent or even bigger than that of the United States.
2. The inability of the European Union foreign ministers to take a decision on the extension of the Union’s arms ban against the foreign-sponsored militants in Syria and the subsequent automatic revocation of the arms embargo, is indicative of the absence of unanimity among the European Union member states when it comes to their common foreign and security policy, and especially the EU’s common defense and security policy.
3. The experience gained in past years clearly proves that the European Union has never been able to win a war without help from the United States. Therefore, at a time that NATO and the United States are showing no interest in getting involved in military intervention in Syria, it is very unlikely that the European countries would reach a decision of their own to start such an intervention. However, the ongoing moves by France and the UK and their use of regional leverages at their disposal should not be ignored in this regard.
*Behzad Ahmadi Lafuraki is the director of international relations at Tehran International Studies & Research Institute and analyst of EU and NATO affairs.