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February 1, 2023

EU and Syria: 14 April 2018

On the night of April 13-14 (Bucharest time), three great NATO allied states launched a missile strike on Syria. Over 100 missiles surgically hit sites controlled by the Assad regime in Syria, as part of an action whose initiators described as not being intended to effect “regime change” but to warn against the use of chemical weapons in the conflict (with direct reference to the Damascus regime backed by Russia).

On April 14, early in the morning, U.S. President Donald Trump wrote on his Twitter account: “A perfectly executed strike last night. Thank you to France and the United Kingdom for their wisdom and the power of their fine Military. Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!” The reactions in the capitals of the great powers were immediate and outlined an international situation that, of course assessed differently by the global media, ranged from the start of World War Three to various theories, the latter ranging from an agreement between those apparently in dispute (Russia and the three NATO powers) to a first stage in an attack on Iran.

Obviously, as NATO and EU member state, Romania is interested to the highest degree in what is happening in the theatre of the Syrian civil war. Not just because two of the important foreign actors in this war – Russia and Turkey – are our neighbours at the Black Sea, but also because Russia is transporting its forces there through our immediate vicinity and its military activism in Syria is closely linked to a preeminent position in the regions close to the Straits that link the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. Let us also add that the Mediterranean Sea’s eastern basin is the scene of a high concentration of naval forces, and in Syria there is another player of calibre – Iran – that tends to gain a geopolitical position of major importance in the whole Middle East and “access” by proxy to this sea.

From Bucharest’s standpoint, it is interesting that three of the great NATO states are the ones that carried out the military strikes on Syrian sites on Saturday night – the U.S., United Kingdom and France –, two of them being EU members – United Kingdom (until March next year) and France. Considering the Brexit negotiations, we can say that, from among EU members only France was active in this recent page of the dossier of extreme international importance that today’s Syria is. Undoubtedly, the action of the three great NATO actors must be evaluated as an expression, first of all, of their status as veto-wielding members of the UN (with Russia and China being the other two). In this referential framework, the warning issued through the missile strike carried out by the three NATO states concerned the inadmissibility of the use of weapons of mass destruction (chemical weapons), hence Russia, as an ally of the Assad regime, was in its turn warned in what concerns the protection it gives Damascus. As already known, Moscow was timely informed about the targets about to be struck and even sheltered the Syrian government’s air forces in its bases in Syria.

However, what is the overall position of the European Union, as registered immediately after the three states carried out their military strikes on Syria on April 14? The positions expressed through official statements made by the leadership of the European organisation have outlined its support for this action, the emphasis made being that a strong signal is being thus issued against the future use of chemical weapons in armed conflicts. The EU’s official position, underscored by F. Mogherini, the EU’s representative for foreign affairs, noted that “the EU was informed about targeted US, French and UK airstrikes on chemical weapons facilities in Syria,” and that “specific measures having been taken with the sole objective to prevent further use of chemical weapons and chemical substances as weapons by the Syrian regime to kill its own people.” One must necessarily mention the emphasis placed on the “sole objective” of the military action that occurred, to make especially clear the way the EU – informed in advance – understood its necessity.

Jean Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission, made this even clearer on his Twitter account on April 14: “The use of chemical weapons is unacceptable in any circumstances and must be condemned in the strongest terms. The international community has the responsibility to identify and hold accountable those responsible of any attack with chemical weapons.” His position is significant because it introduces a systemic recalibration, namely the international community’s responsibility to identify and punish those who are responsible for such crimes against humanity.

Federica Mogherini (photo) went even further in this regard, pointing out, in her official statement, that the EU supports any effort to prevent the use of chemical weapons – hence also the action that the three great powers carried out in Syria the day before – and that “the EU reiterates that there can be no other solution to the Syrian conflict than political.” Moreover, “The EU calls upon all parties to the conflict, especially the regime and its allies, to implement immediately the ceasefire, and to ensure humanitarian access and medical evacuations as unanimously agreed in UNSC Resolution 2401,” hence the resumption of the Geneva process sponsored initially by the U.S. and Russia but later abandoned against the backdrop of the tense relations between the two sponsors in the autumn of 2016.

On the same day, posted on the official website of the German Foreign Ministry was the following statement on the meeting that the holder of the portfolio, Heiko Maas, had with Federica Mogherini: “If we want to get our voice heard in the world we need a truly European Foreign Policy.” Which announces, in our opinion, an important role that the EU sees fit to undertake in solving the Syrian crisis. In this context, Mogherini announced in her official statement that “The Second Brussels Conference on Syria which will be held on 24-25 April 2018, co-chaired by the EU and the UN, will be the opportunity for the entire international community to relaunch its consistent support for the political process.”

It is useful to note another point of view, important to consider at a time when international developments can experience unpredictable and extremely dangerous turns. It was expressed by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who recently held the Foreign Affairs portfolio, in an interview given to the German press on Sunday, April 15 (‘Bild am Sonntag’ daily). He stated that the “demonization” of Russia and its designation as an enemy must be avoided, Germany having to maintain the links with it in order to influence it in the direction of a “constructive” attitude. Because, the German president emphasised, “Whether we like it or not, the Syrian conflict cannot be resolved without Russia.”

Of course, the crisis in Syria, which has entered a new phase after April 14, has a huge potential of unpredictability in its developments. Already, the great systemic powers have carried out unnerving regroupings – China, for instance, has voted in favour of a Russian resolution to condemn the attack within the Security Council, a resolution that was however rejected by vote –, which makes the role already undertaken by the EU appear as having special importance. The promotion of the peaceful solution, foreseen through the “Geneva process” (and based on UNSC Resolution 2401 on the implementation of a “roadmap” of transition in Syria, one that all actors involved in the civil war agree with), stands out as a significant factor of de-escalation of the international situation that is very grave at this moment.

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