The Syrian Disaster and the Failure of European Strategy in the Mediterranean

barbed-fencePierre Beckouche examines how the Syrian disaster represents a fourfold failure of European strategy in the Mediterranean.

Since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011 twelve to thirteen million Syrians have fled their homes, of which almost half travelled abroad. Within the country, 14 million are in need of humanitarian assistance and between three and four hundred thousand, predominantly civilians, lost their life. A recent UN report says that all sides committed war crimes in the civil war, namely during the terrible battle of Aleppo.

The country is largely destroyed. For those who have fled there is no going home. Their homes have been destroyed and former places of living are unsafe. The Syrian refugees abroad envisage a very long stay because they know that, despite Bachar’s recent victories, the fighting is far from over, and because the nation’s recovery will take decades. Most of them are pessimistic over the outcome of the Geneva talks.

This is not only a national catastrophe, but also a regional doom for the Near-East.

Among the Syrians escaping the conflict, the majority sought refuge in neighbouring countries: Turkey (almost three million), Lebanon (one and a half million), Jordan (one million) and Iraq (perhaps half a million). In Lebanon and in Jordan, the Syrians make up now a quarter of the population. For the hosting country offering a supportive welcoming it represents a critical burden on the country’s economy and social structure, not to speak of the potential political destabilization. In Turkey and in Iraq the Syrian refugees are a component of the complex on-going geopolitical rearrangement between Arab Sunnis, Arab Shias and Kurds – to restrict to the main ethnic groups. In particular, the possible extension of the Kurdish area along the northern border of Syria is at the top of Ankara’s political concerns, and also reactivates the Kurdish issue in Iraq and Iran. Last but not least, the position of power gained by Iran in Syria has moved its coming conflict with Saudi Arabia and possibly Israel a step further.

What about Europe? Oxfam International says that less than 3% of Syria’s refugees have been resettled in rich countries: 40,000 in Canada, 12,000 in the US but less than 10,000 in France for instance (the French government had promised 30,000). To date, the records per 10,000 inhabitants are 1.5 Syrian refugees in France and 74 in Germany, compared with 360 in Turkey. In the last two years, Europe has experienced the greatest mass movement of people since the Second World War. More than one million refugees and migrants have arrived in the EU, a large part of them from Syria. One million Syrians have requested asylum to Europe. However, the main answer of the EU has been to improve security at borders with a new border and coast guard system.

This shows a fourfold European failure. The first one is of course humanitarian. The second is the breakdown of the fragile European political unity, with a rising isolation of Germany which have had the courage to welcome as much as 600,000 Syrian refugees. The third failure is the inconsistency of the Europeans’ diplomacy vis-à-vis Syria, since the Europeans are now de facto supporting Bachar against the IS whereas they had promptly followed the US position at the beginning of the war by saying that Bachar was the main problem. The last failure is that of the European Neighbourhood Policy, with a gigantic turmoil in the Mediterranean neighbourhood and a rising hostility vis-à-vis the Russian neighbour which happens to be the geopolitical winner on the Syrian stage.

The deep meaning of the failure

Now, let us step back and think about the deep meaning of this European failure which illustrates that there is a high interdependence between Europe and the Near-East, and that the Europeans had a blurred vision of their common future with their Mediterranean neighbours.

Since the Barcelona process was launched (1995) and despite its various reformulating plans (European Neighbourhood Policy in 2007, Union for the Mediterranean in 2008), the Euro-Mediterranean region has experienced de-integration in terms of economic, cultural and political exchanges. Indeed, the Euro-Mediterranean integration remains dominated by a free trade/security diptych subject to guidelines dictated by the North. Economists call it a “shallow” regional integration, in opposition to a “deep” integration which would imply a strong convergence of norms and standards, a profound cooperation in training, technology and production matters. The EU hardly managed enhancing an economic transition of these South Mediterranean economies dominated by rent, and a political transition towards the rule of law because the European support to the Arab Spring has been late and contradictory (see in 2013 EU’s backing of General Al-Sisi’s coup against the Egyptian elected president). Mediterranean neighbours see Europe as an envied land on the one hand but as a political dwarf on the other. For their part, Europeans see their Mediterranean neighbourhood as a troublesome area, with low awareness that its political and economic transition will last decades and that they should help this transition move to a win-win situation.

As a matter of fact, in the last three decades, Europe has lost some of its economic and political influence on its neighbours. The EU has been unable to shape its Mediterranean neighbourhood’s destiny, whereas Japan, as soon as WWII ended, had a vision of the strategic relationship with its developing neighbours which has given birth to Dragons and Tigers. Ironically, the closer the Arab Mediterranean transitional countries are getting to the European-like democratic regime, the more they seem to look at other partners. This is particularly the case of the Near-East where the influence of the Gulf countries is growing, with declining common social, cultural and political references with Europe. This constitutes the background of its fourfold — humanitarian, political, geopolitical, geographical – failure in the Syrian issue.

Pierre Beckouche, is Professor of Geography at the University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne and the International College of Territorial Sciences (CIST), France



Europe’s Mediterranean Neighbourhood: An Integrated Geography, edited by Pierre Beckouche

Read Chapter 1 The Mediterranean in the European Neighbourhoods free on Elgaronline

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