During the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee for Palestine at the United Nations (UN), Federica Mogherini – the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy – declared that ‘the international community does not and cannot give up on peace in the Middle East’ (EEAS, 2007). This statement illustrates the attitude of the EU towards the many disputes that the Middle East faces regarding the war and terrorism, namely the civil war in Syria, and answering the question as to why this war has lasted so many years. This brings up the question: what are the responsibilities of the EU and its Member states in Middle Eastern states’ domestic policies after so many years of invading the region?
There are three aims of this article. Firstly, through an overview of the historical context, it aims to demonstrate the link between the expansion of terrorist groups and the West’s interventions in the Middle East. Secondly, this article aims to illustrate EU involvement during the conflict in Syria at the humanitarian and political level. Finally, it seeks to identify the effects of the Syrian war on Europe and its the security.
The EU and the Middle East
When the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992, twelve member states established, inter alia, the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) to strengthen the EU’s military capabilities. It introduced the term “human rights”, as well as the principles of democracy and liberty. The period since the signing of the Maastricht Treaty has been marked as ‘a new stage in the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe’ (European Central Bank, 2017).
After the US had invaded Iraq against the mandate of the UN, an international “coalition of the willing” was formed in 2003 by the United States that enjoyed the full support of the United Kingdom. According to President George W. Bush, the reason for the intervention was “to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people” (The White House, 2003). Moreover, officially the aim of the US was to establish democracy through the fall of Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq. However, a great number of investigations and research proved that the real motives behind the war were related to oil and the security issues of the US in the Middle East. The US was dependent on oil producers at the time, which made the hegemonic America vulnerable to the oil market. As a one of the largest oil reserves globally, Iraq seemed to be the solution to the concerns of American leaders. However, the presidency of Saddam Hussein had been an obstacle for oil benefits of the US that needed to be taken care of (Hinnebuch, 2007).
In the case of Europe, a lack of unity has been a problematic issue, even with the creation of a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). Apart from the UK, France, Germany and Poland had their own national interests regarding the war (Wood, 2003). However, the European policy use of force under the legal umbrella was not a secret. The EU at that time declared that “The European Union is deeply concerned about the Iraqi crisis” (5963/03, Presse 28). Time is running out. UNSCR 1441 gave Iraq a final opportunity to disarm peacefully (S/RES/1441, 2002). If it does not take this chance it will carry the responsibility for all the consequences.
The EU and Syria
In the case of Syria, Hafez al-Assad had been the President of Syria for 30 years and after his death, his son Bashar al-Assad came to power. He has taken a series of restrictive measures to those who are opposed to his rules and has imposed government control of the media (Human Rights Watch, 2010). As Human Rights Watch described the situation under the presidency, “Syria’s prisons are filled again with political prisoners, journalists, and human rights activists” (2010, ¶3). Following the example of Tunisia and Egypt, the uprising began in 2011 when people demanded freedom of speech, release of political prisoners, reforms, the abolition of the state of emergency and putting an end to the dictatorship (El Fassi, 2012, p.6).
So why has the Syrian conflict lasted for so many years? Firstly, the EU and the US cannot intervene militarily due to the vetoes of Russia and China that block any decision on the Security Council (BBC News, 2017). Meanwhile, financing from external actors such as Iran and Russia to the Syrian government and the opposition contributes to the extension of the conflict has prolonged a peaceful solution (BBC News, 2017). Secondly, the emergence of terrorist groups has also played a role in the duration of the conflict and the division of the country. For example, a number of rebels who were fighting against Assad joined Da’esh – the self-proclaimed ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ (ISIL) – which has further divided society (The Telegraph, 2015). The occupation of cities such as Raqqa means that thousands of people have fled their homes. For them, the aim is now not to fight against Assad, but to find a safe home for their families. Finally, Assad refuses to resign for many reasons, among them fear of losing his reputation “and far-reaching repercussions elsewhere” (Walt, 2010, ¶ 9). In the end, the future of Bashar al-Assad might not be as bright as it seemed a decade ago. Syria’s internal stability depends on the reconstruction and reunification of a country whose people have experienced years of war and devastation (EEAS, 2017). This process may take years, if not generations.
Regarding the Syrian conflict, the EU supports a political rather than a military solution. In terms of civilians and vulnerable populations, the Union has been one of the biggest humanitarian donors in the field. In particular, it has implemented a common strategy for Syria focusing on six main areas (EEAS, 2017, p.1):
- Support a political solution, instead of military action, in line with the Security Council Resolution 2254 and the UN Special Envoy for Syria;
- Support to strengthen the political opposition;
- Respond to humanitarian needs, especially for the most vulnerable population;
- Strengthen civil society organizations in order to further promote freedom of speech, democratic values and defend human rights;
- Condemnation of war crimes and any violation of human rights and investigate any crimes committed under international law; and
- Support in the field of education, reduction of unemployment through job creation collaborating closely with the opposition.
Terrorism in the Middle East and Beyond
As opposed to the artificially created Sunni-Shia sectarian divide in Iraq, in small villages of the country it was more likely that the two factions worship together as both of them have gotten along for centuries across the Middle East in general and in Iraq in specific. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 left people and their families devastated and consequently created fertile ground for the expansion of terror. Due to political upheaval in the country, the Shiites and the Kurds came to the power and, as a result, the Sunni Arabs were isolated and dissatisfied with major domestic issues such as extreme discrimination against them, unemployment and social isolation (Daniel, 2008, p. 232). As a result, terrorist groups found fertile grounds to expand during the Arab Spring, the most notorious group being Da’esh. In Europe, the profile of the terrorists is proved to be similar in many cases: Radicalized second generation immigrants that have been facing discrimination and racism throughout their lives. While the reasons behind their radicalization are many, European governments have a great number of responsibilities. At the moment, by not implementing strategies regarding the integration of immigrants, European governments marginalize citizens of a different cultural background who have no equal opportunities. As a result, young people are vulnerable and more susceptible to radicalization. For instance, the attacks in Barcelona in August 2017 have been planned and executed by a group of twelve young terrorists (BBC News, 2017). Regarding the attacks in November 2015 that took place in Paris during which three gunmen killing 130 people outside the Bataclan theater, restaurants and bars is an example of this terrorist activity (BBC News, 2015). All of the attackers had either Belgian or French nationality (Europe1, 2015). Many young individuals had been planning to leave Europe in order to fight on the ground in Syria and Iraq. However, due to restrictives measures implemented by states, they cannot leave and they thus consider that a fight should take place in their areas where they were born and grew up. This brings up the name “ domestic terrorism” (RTBF, 2017). A professor of Criminology of the University of Liege, Michaël Dantinne, admitted that the only solution is “to invest in the long term to ensure that people do not adhere to these ideas, do not take the path of radicalization”. He states that states’ awareness “must still be translated into a set of courageous policies” (RTBF, 2017) .
Thus, many disenchanted individuals radicalized and at this moment, Al-Qaeda in Iraq have started gaining ground. With the Arab Spring and divided populations, Da’esh managed to control large territories of Iraq and Syria and declared itself a “Caliphate” in 2014. Da’esh has a large number of fighters, weapons, and an effective propaganda machine which has encouraged terrorist attacks in the Middle East, Africa and Europe.
In 2014, the European Council Conclusions recognised the expansion of Da’esh as the main threat to the security of Europe and in particular to Member States. Federica Mogherini underlined the necessity to tackle the tendency of “Foreign Terrorist Fighters” who leave their countries in order to join the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria. The 28 Member States of the EU adopted a common strategy in the same year. However, Gilles de Kerchove, European Union’s counter-terrorism chief, targeting the EU Members of the coalition might be a sign of weakness from the part of Da’esh as they only “ try to show victory and attract more fighters” (Rudaw, 2015). According to latest information, there are less than 1,000 fighters remaining in Syria and Iraq and both states have “declared victory over Islamic state in recent weeks, after a year that saw the two countries’ armies, a range of foreign allies and various local forces drive the fighters out of all the towns and villages that once made up their self-proclaimed caliphate” (Reuters, 2017). As for the remaining fighters, the US-led coalition stated to Reuters that “we are working with our partners to kill or capture all remaining ISIS terrorists, to destroy their network and prevent their resurgence, and also to prevent them from escaping to bordering countries” (Reuters, 2017).
The EU has been supporting reforms at the political and economical level in the Middle East, respecting each country and seeking cooperation. Nevertheless, the tendency not to admit the implication of some of its Member States behind the current conflicts in Syria and Iraq and to the sectarian rivalries needs to change. Member States should not only admit their mistakes regarding their decisions made about Middle East, but it is also crucial to decrease discrimination within Europe itself; especially for those people whose houses and families have been destroyed by the West’s systematically invasions in other states’ domestic policies. Without these changes, the “war on terrorism” will continue to increase the prevalence of terrorism both in Europe as well as abroad instead of decreasing it.
Andri Stravrou is the 2017-18 EST Ambassador to Belgium.
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