To fully understand the European Union's role in the Syrian crisis, a small thought experiment could prove helpful. If you were a party in the civil war in Syria, which of the following actors would you most like to have as an ally? The Russians, who deliver military supplies and demand political influence and a warm-water port in return? The rulers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who guarantee an endless supply of weapons in exchange for ideological compliance? Or perhaps the Americans, who remain hesitant to become involved but are nonetheless the world's most influential political and economic power?
One thing is clear: The EU would certainly not be at the top of the list. Europe, to be sure, regularly demands written assurances that it's allies are not cooperating with Islamists and terrorists. But as quid pro quo, they don't offer much more than encouraging words. And there is a reason for that. The Europeans can't even agree on a common position.
The agreement that EU foreign ministers finally managed to reach late on Monday night is a compromise in name only. The bloc's 27 member-states were only able to agree on a continuation of the financial and economic sanctions that are currently in place. Such sanctions are the lowest common denominator of the EU's approach to Syria, though. When it comes to the much more important issue of arms shipment, Europe is hopelessly divided.
To be fair, there is no simple answer to that question. The concerns harbored by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, which are shared by many countries in Europe, should be taken seriously. How can it be guaranteed that the weapons don't fall into the wrong hands? And would more weapons really help end the war sooner?
Moderate Opposition Left Out
On the other hand, the French and the British have a point: The Russians and Iranians have long been arming their allies while the Islamists receive weapons from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The only group that has been left without supplies is the moderate opposition backed by the West.
But the importance of the current discussion was not that of delivering weapons to the rebels as quickly as possible. Leaders in both London and Paris are well aware of the dangers of such an escalation. It remains unclear as to whether either government will decide to take action.
The significance of the meeting in Brussels was that of delivering a political signal. And the signal that emerged on Monday night is unfortunately one of disunity. It comes at an inopportune time: Washington and Moscow have agreed to hold an international conference on Syria , a meeting in which the most important Syrian groups and their patrons are to take part. It likely represents the last chance to find a political solution to the crisis. Wolfgang Ischinger, head of the Munich Security Conference and an experienced crisis diplomat, points out correctly that the conference can only be successful if Syrian President Bashar Assad and his opponents understand that failure would pose significant risks for all parties to the conflict .
Lack of Credibility
The EU should have announced that it would abandon its reserve should the conference yield no results, which has been the message from both Washington and London. Whether that would be enough to pressure Assad to stand down is unclear. What is clear, however, is that Europe's lack of clarity exerts no pressure at all.
It would have made more sense for the EU, as a body, to say that it was keeping all its options on the table ahead of the conference, including weapons deliveries. Concrete steps could then have been addressed later. On the spectrum between the delivery of heavy materiel such as surface-to-air missiles and doing nothing, there are plenty of possible actions that can be taken. But as long as the value of Saudi Arabian arms shipments to Syria, for example, overshadows EU civilian aid, the Europeans will continue to lack credibility.
Once again, Europe has managed to sideline itself on a central foreign policy question. Westerwelle is correct to continuously repeat that only a political solution can guarantee lasting peace. But in order to get that far, a credible threat is necessary. Or, as United Nations Special Representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi says, simply calling for Assad to step down does not a strategy make.