Curtains up on the Syrian civil war: the EU is watching from the gallery

Brussels appears unable to step into the breach, feeling its job is to sort out the immigration crisis but not much else

EU parliament


It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. On the international stage the European Union is worth next to nothing. Eurosceptics are jubilant, as their anti-Brussels feelings appear vindicated: what is the EU actually for?

It’s certainly not intended for military action. The EU hasn’t been able to develop a common stance on the Syrian crisis, despite having had the time, intelligence and resources. The continental bureaucratic giant has proved once more to be politically inept.

Not so good on the military side then. Diplomacy? On this the EU hasn’t performed that well either. The skies of Syria are a free ride for all: Russian, American, French, British and Israeli warplanes (the latter are used to moving as they please over that airspace) are delivering air strikes concurrently, but what about coordination? Could the EU help?

Despite the Syrian civil war having a direct impact on it, with many state members struggling to absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees, the EU remained silent after Russia launched its biggest-ever military operation outside its national borders after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Russian president Vladimir Putin claimed his army is aiming at Isis to help Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, a close ally of his in the Middle-East. But the US are worried that Moscow is more interested in propping up Assad than nailing Isis.

Following the failure of the UK, France and Germany to agree on a common strategy for Syria, the president of the Liberal-Democratic group in the European Parliament Guy Verhofstadt said: “It is unacceptable … to see that while Russia and China are increasing their military presence in Syria and as the US reconsider their approach, there is no leadership to be seen on the EU side.”

BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus said Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, claimed there are no plans to expand air strikes to Iraq.

“We were not invited; we were not asked. And we are polite people, as you know. We don’t come if not invited,” Lavrov said. Yet Russian action in Syria has already come into conflict with the US-led campaign. Lavrov said the first talks between Russia and the US would happen “very, very soon”. Any scope for EU mediation?

The Syrian civil war began with an uprising against the government but has since splintered into various rebel groups fighting Assad’s forces as well as one another. Just like EU members on a diplomatic and military level. However, these may start talking again ‘very, very soon’ as well. (And pigs might fly too.)

Jean-Claude Juncker’s dreams of an EU army will remain such – a flight of fantasy. Once again, it’s the Middle East telling Brussels where its place in the world is: up there, in the gallery, where tickets are cheapest, watching the usual actors on stage masterfully repeating the same old lines. Only this time they jabber. Or maybe they’re just talking on top of one another. Nothing the EU can do about that, anyway.

Bombs are not its forte: the EU should focus instead on pulling its weight to create what the Guardian describes as “safe havens, no fly-zones and local ceasefires [to] get an increasing number of ordinary people out of the line of fire”. In truth, the EEAS (the EU diplomatic service) claims that “EU members have mobilised over €3bn in development and humanitarian aid since the [Syrian] conflict began.”

Now, Germany is welcoming as many refugees as the country possibly can; specific infrastructure has been very costly. Not to mention the tens of thousands of lives saved by the Italian navy (and others) in the Mediterranean.

On a single country basis that’s fine, but collectively, the union as a whole, hasn’t done much. So the question remains. When humanitarian aid in the Middle East is so desperately needed, where has this money gone?

Alessio Colonnelli also contributes to openDemocracy, Shifting Grounds and Euro Crisis/LSE. He holds a combined B.A./M.A. in languages and literary translation from Padua University

5 Responses to “Curtains up on the Syrian civil war: the EU is watching from the gallery”

  1. steroflex

    I hope that Sr Colonelli has faith in his fellow countryperson, Federica Mogherini. Her behaviour in the Ukraine carries on the traditions of her predecessor, Baroness Ashton. Mr Putin, of course, was nettled and now we need him as an ally!
    I am sure that Sr Colonelli has studied the Spinelli document which Guy Verhofstadt had part in. The European Army and the European Police force are just two of the things which are in the new Fundamental Law of the European Union due to be ratified by all 28 of the Member States of the coming Union by 2020.


    The oil still flows so no need to panic Cpl Jones.

  3. David Lindsay

    It is entirely unsurprising that Russia can identify its side in the five-way or more civil war in Syria.

    That is Russia’s judgement.

    But I cannot see our side.

  4. Mann T.

    We are watching from the gallery? But a rather large number of the cast are rushing from the stage to the gallery and some fear the gallery may collapse under the pressure. But like the students on the balcony that collapsed, anyone who complains about the stresses on the gallery is clearly some sort of undesirable and should be ignored.

  5. Mann T.

    The democracies are weak, divided and at a loss. There are too many in the democracies, unused to war and laden with untested ideals and pampered with soft lives who bleat for bloodless victories in a bloody war.

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