STRASBOURG (EJP) --- EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton issued a ringing indictment of critics of Europe’s handling of the ongoing Syrian crisis Tuesday at a debate at the European Parliament plenary session in Strasbourg, as she warned not to “leap to conclusion that unless we engage in military solutions we are inactive”.
Responding to accusations from various MEPs of the EU’s powerlessness over the escalating situation, characterised by Dutch liberal member Marietje Schaake’s allegation that the EU’s reputation as a global player was undermined by its repetitive rhetoric and that “words are no longer enough for the Syrian people”, Ashton insisted:
“The EU is respected for what we do to try to support the people of Syria and to try to find a way through this incredibly difficult challenge. Because frankly, if it was easy, we would have done it by now.”
Having opened the debate session with a statement summing up the worsening refugee crisis taking its increasing toll on neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey as well as the rapidly rising death toll, standing at 25,000 after 18 months of fighting in the country, Ashton focused her efforts on describing the need to provide financial support for humanitarian efforts, in the form of education, food, water and organisational support for the Syrian people.
Articulating the diplomatic stalemate arrived at by the international community, in light of a series of vetoes by close Syrian allies Russia and China blocking more stringent measures against the authoritarian regime by the UN Security Council and the failure of Kofi Annan’s six point plan followed by his subsequent resignation, Ashton conceded “we don’t yet have a real alternative to the regime that is power and an alternative that is truly inclusive”, admitting it was a source of frustration for many of the key players.
Suggesting the only solution was to put faith in Annan’s successor Lakhdar Brahimi and try to forge some unity amongst Syrian opposition groups, she called on the European representatives to help to prepare “for the post-conflict moment, for the period of transition towards what we want to see, which is, of course, diplomacy”.
Insisting that without the support of the international community, Brahimi’s task, like Annan’s before him, would prove “impossible”, Ashton provoked a chorus of disapproval amongst assembled parliamentarians.
Spanish Christian Democrat Jose Ignacio Salafranca asserted that as the “bloodbath” continues in Syria and amidst Annan’s resignation, it’s important to acknowledge that “his plan was destined to fail from the beginning”. Invoking incoming UN-Arab League envoy Brahimi’s comments that his mission is “virtually impossible”, he asked why “he accepted it in the first place”, adding that the regime is now using the complicity of China and Russia on the security council, hoping that sooner or later there will be an international intervention”, on which they could capitalise, whilst the time has come for the EU to “take a decision”.
Asking for “concrete” clarification from the foreign policy chief on the much touted possibility of introducing a no-fly zone over Syria, he levelled that the role of the EU is not only of a humanitarian nature “to be an international red cross, we’ve got to have political clout alongside other clout in order to stop this massacre”.
“Syria is not Libya,” Ashton contended in response, “and you shouldn’t mix them up.” “A security council resolution led the way in Libya. We knew that a no-fly zone was a military action, it’s not a benign activity, it’s something you do using military assets. And if you move in and decide you’re going to take military action, you have to recognise the size and scale of what is being asked of you.”
Other members contended that the very idea of planning for a post-conflict transition in Syria was flawed in itself whilst civil war continues to rage in the country. Belgian Socialist MEP Veronique de Keyser described discussing that future landmark whilst people are dying as “completely bizarre”, conceding that the EU’s emphasis on “restricting the risk of contagion is perhaps tying our hands so that we can’t really deal with what is worrying us today”.
Belgian Democrat Guy Verhofstadt meanwhile raged that the EU’s apparent inactivity was compounded by the reluctance of the US to act decisively in the lead-up the November’s presidential elections, insisting “there won’t be a political transition if we don’t first tackle ending the Assad regime”. “If the Americans don’t have the courage,” he added, “maybe the Europeans do”.
Responding to De Keyser’s accusations of war mongering, calling on US President Obama to start a third war if re-elected, when the security council could instead reach a united conclusion with Russia’s approval which would compel Syrian President Bashar Assad to leave power and negate the need for a war, Verhofstadt insisted “there is already a war in Syria. There is civil war in Syria. Assad is not just going to leave like that, on his own.”
Addressing both members’ accusations, Ashton insisted it was necessary to consider “the implications of the big words translated into actions on the ground and start thinking properly and comprehensively about what we do”. On the need for preparing a post-conflict action plan, she maintained “if we don’t start preparing for it now, we won’t be ready for a situation that could crumble really quickly. And we will have to be ready with assets to move in to support people in all these areas where we’ve been unable to reach them”.
“We have to find solutions we know are going to work and that we can work with the international community to achieve, and most of all, that we believe will bring peace as quickly as possible and not an escalation of violence, and that has to be part of the solution we see,” she added.
Several speakers contended that the international community’s emphasis on uniting and strengthening the Syrian opposition parties was not without its own inherent risks, as factions of the opposition were themselves intertwined with Jihadist and militant groups. Austrian MEP Andrea Molzer claimed that “the Assad regime is ready to keep power using all means at its disposal” including last week’s apparent attempt to bamboozle ally Russia with false claims of Assad’s apparent readiness to abdicate.
Warning that militant action could further enable extremist Islamist rebels to entrench themselves in Syria, he alleged “the rebels themselves have carried out arbitrary executions, they have tortured, they have carried out human rights infractions”, suggesting the opposition was no better to the murderous regime it sought to displace.
Other members criticised incumbent EU presidency holder Cyprus for allowing Syrian allies to traffick arms to Assad via its waters. Insisting that humanitarian corridors were unnecessary, Portugese Green member Rui Tavares levelled the EU had a direct path to isolate the regime and aid the humanitarian in one go, by route of their maritime border, stressing: “You just need to talk to Cyprus and say that instead of allowing weapons to get in to Assad as they’ve already done, what Cyprus has to do is open its maritime border to receive refugees in Cyprus and then we could distribute these refugees throughout the EU”.
Schaake described the enabling role of Cyprus is Syria’s continued armed oppression of its people “a disgrace”. “I’m surprised and confused about what a weapon embargo even means, if this can continue to happen. So I think that if we’re not capable of enforcing our own words, such as a weapon embargo and the export of repressive goods, such as technologies as well, then we’re losing our credibility,” she continued.
Rejecting criticism of the EU’s July conclusions calling on its members to honour the arms embargo and “check what’s going through its countries”, Ashton clarified that the measure was not a sign of the EU’s lack of credibility or power to enforce its directives, but rather came in direct response to the demands of parliament.
Sidestepping criticisms of EU presidency holders Cyprus, she concluded: “We look for more sanctions to place on the regime, not least to send the strongest clearest possible message to everyone else, that we want to see Assad go and we want to see a solution inclusive of the people of Syria and born of the people of Syria, that will help them to get the kind of society that we think most people want.”