World View: Aleppo highlights EU foreign policy failure
Big states see EU as just another multilateral forum to pursue national goals
Death in Aleppo: Response to Syrian conflict needs much more informed and constructive international debate, especially in a Europe that bears many of the actual and potential consequences. Photograph: Reuters
Aleppo’s agony commands the headlines, demands action and sets the scene for a geopolitical drama on Syria’s future in the Middle East.
This intractable conflict could get worse before it gets better. Why that is so and what can be done about it needs much more informed and constructive international debate, especially in a Europe which bears many of the actual and potential consequences.
Eastern Aleppo has been systematically bombed by Syrian helicopters and Russian aircraft for over a week after the ceasefire agreed in Geneva collapsed. United States and Russian representatives blame each other, citing twin atrocities. The city’s civilian infrastructure of hospitals and water supplies has been targeted. These are war crimes, documented on the ground and in appalling TV and social media footage.
Actions to tackle the escalation, arising from Assad’s ruthless military campaign to capture the strategic city, include western demands for a no-fly zone, further sanctions on Russian and Syrian officials and more political talks in Zurich this weekend involving US, Russian, Iranian, Turkish, Saudi and Qatari ministers. Their outcome will be reported on to European and other parties in the International Support Group for Syria. European foreign ministers meet on Monday to advise an EU summit later in the week on what to do.
Whoever wins the election, the Europeans will have to deal with a US demanding they do more on security and defence and with a more assertive Russia. They are to decide on a more co-ordinated set of such policies at another summit in December, involving closer civilian-military links in Brussels, with Nato and agreement that enhanced co-operation by smaller groups of states can go ahead unhindered.
In the meantime the EU foreign policy high representative Federica Mogherini struggles to develop a coherent approach to the diplomacy on Syria amid demands by leaders and citizens that the EU should do more. Her guideline is the document on Global Strategy she published in June and which is now being canvassed more widely. It stresses the connectedness, contestedness and complexity of world politics and aims to protect citizens and deter threats.
She is at the centre of the diplomacy on Syria and sees no military solution there. In Stockholm this week she described her task as “trying to stubbornly open small spaces, little ways that can lead to sane political solutions locally, regionally and at global level”. It is a worthy endeavour, to which the EU brings resources as a strong global actor on humanitarian aid, market power and extensive networks of peace operations in 17 different conflicts.
Introducing an article on the new EU strategy paper the Austrian commentator Stefan Leyne shrewdly observed its foreign policy “is characterised by a few big countries that see the EU as just another multilateral forum, in which they pursue their national foreign policy goals; a number of small states that enjoy the opportunity to sound off on international developments but shy away from the costs and risks of serious engagement; and a few others that would like to do more but are unhappily stuck in between.”
Leyne went on to say: “All this takes place in a dysfunctional institutional framework beset by turf wars and against a background of a series of deep crises, which have caused a parallel decline of the EU’s foreign policy ambition and its international clout.” Leyne nevertheless welcomed the initiative and wished it luck.
These weaknesses can be seen in grandstanding and disagreements by several of the large states over Syria this week and in the reluctance of others to take their obligations seriously. The Syrian crisis is likely to concentrate their minds on the need for closer co-operation in coming months.