Syrian Refugee Crisis: A True Test for the EU
October 15, 2015
The global migrant crisis is forcing European countries reassess their foreign policies towards Syria and Russia. EU member states recognize the sheer magnitude of the migrant issue, and are trying to tackle the short-term humanitarian problems while also finding long-term structural solutions.
Syrian Refugee Flow, April ’11 - September ’15 (Source: UNHCR)
A Temporary Solution
The EU has already reached a tentative solution to the refugee crisis, by allocating migrants across countries depending on their respective GDP, population size, and unemployment rate. The EU also agreed to send more funds and resources to various Middle Eastern countries, including Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. However, EU countries are increasingly recognizing the need for more direct engagement in the region. In the midst of bombing campaigns against ISIS in Syria, Germany, France and Britain are now reassessing their overarching political stance towards Assad and Putin in order to stem refugee flows and counter the ISIS threat.
Germany has recently decided to adopt a policy in Syria aimed at finding a way to stabilize the country as quickly as possible. Germany believes this crisis needs to be tackled at its roots in Syria and Turkey. German Foreign Minister Steinmeier traveled to Ankara in the past month to discuss Syria and the migration crisis, and an Action Plan was subsequently drawn up on October 5th. It includes giving Turkey up to $1.1 billion to manage the refugees and to set up six refugee centers. In return, Turkey must improve its documentation controls to reduce the number of illegal border crossings to Europe. Despite EU leaders’ initial reluctance towards allowing Turkish visa-free travel to Europe, they are trying to address the crisis with Turkey in two ways; they are attempting to support the refugees and their host communities in Turkey while strengthening cooperation to stop irregular migration flows to Europe. It is clear that Germany is seeking alternative strategies to improve the situation in Syria. It recognizes that President Bashar al-Assad needs to be removed through diplomacy rather than military means. Therefore, engaging with Vladimir Putin, as one of Assad’s long-lasting allies, is crucial, but obviously difficult given Russia’s recent intervention in Ukraine. Thus, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will attempt to strike a tricky balance between not losing credibility over her EU’s sanctions policy while simultaneously attempting to build bridges with Putin over Syria.
Although the French are the most reluctant to engage with Syria because they fear it will legitimize Assad’s regime, the increasing numbers of refugees arriving at Europe’s border has led to a change in its strategy. The French are now ready to engage in anti-ISIS military campaigns to counter the terrorist organization’s advances. Although strikes are largely symbolic, President Hollande hopes that they will increase his influence in international negotiations. Even though France’s recent actions are unlikely to increase its diplomatic leverage, it will allow the government to claim domestically that it is confronting ISIS more seriously.
In the case of the UK, the government recognizes that it must play a leading role in the war against the Islamic State. Most importantly, the UK wants to ensure that it also influences EU’s foreign policy towards Syria, not just Germany and France, as was the case during the Ukrainian conflict. Cameron also wants to contain the influx of refugees and reduce the risk of terrorist attacks in the UK. Given that the British government made definitive statements in 2013 about the need to remove Assad, the government cannot change its official position without incurring reputational costs. However, the British government is already softening its stance by claiming that Assad is now the lesser of two evils. Earlier this week, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told Reuters that in order to maintain peace, Assad must remain nominally in place for some time. The UK also recognizes that Russia’s involvement in Syria will be beneficial, and is open to opening new channels of communication.
Syria’s Uncertain Future
Despite increased intervention, Syria is likely to remain unstable, and refugee flows are likely to continue rising. Similarly, the West is unlikely to materially weaken ISIS in terms of its organization and effectiveness. The Islamic State has made most of its infrastructure mobile, and intelligence gained from ISIS-held territories is scarce. Furthermore, with Russia’s recent aggressive strikes in Syria and missile incident in Iran, both of which resulted in criticism from the US, the European countries will have more difficulty supporting Russian efforts against ISIS.
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