Syria: Another Litmus Test for Europe’s Common Security and Defence Policy

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Behzad Ahmadi Lafuraki

At the end of March 2013, the sanctions imposed against Syria by the European Union (EU), which include a ban on sending arms to the Syrian government and its opposition alike will be legally over and the bloc members will have to make a new decision by that time. Despite tremendous pressures from France and Britain, other members of the EU have up to this day opposed sending arms to the Syrian rebels and the ban on sending arms to Syria has remained in effect. The last time that the EU opposed sending arms to Syria was in the latest summit meeting of the block in Brussels, Belgium, in which the heads of the European states could not reach an agreement on the revocation of the arms ban against the opposition in Syria. As a result, France and Britain announced that they would possibly consider a unilateral abrogation of the agreement by sending arms to the Syria rebels.

The difference of viewpoints among the EU heads of state is reminder of the crisis in Libya two years ago when the European Union also failed to act within the framework of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) [which was formerly known as the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP)]. As a result, they got engaged in Libya conflict first unilaterally and then within the framework of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Even within the framework of the NATO, many members of the European Union limited their involvement in Libya conflict to a minimum and the organization was faced with serious shortage of forces and equipment during the conflict. It is noteworthy that the Libya war was small in scale and its cost for Europe was relatively low because of the involvement of the United States. Therefore, following the war in Libya many analysts said that the CSDP is actually dead and the European Union is not able and lacks the resolve to achieve the goals of that policy.

No progress in convergence in defense and security sectors according to Treaty of Lisbon

According to the Treaty of Lisbon, the EU’s common security and foreign policy should provide a clear legal basis for the European Defense Agency and also find sources to fund operations related to the common security and defense policy. The EU, however, has not been able to make much progress in defense and security fields despite the conclusion of that Treaty. Meanwhile, regional crises such as those in Syria and Libya proved that in comparison to other fields of the European politics, the EU’s defense and security policy is highly susceptible to differences among the member states.

The lack of solidarity among the member countries of the European Union with regard to the bloc’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, especially with regard to the Common Security and Defense Policy, has many reasons. Among the most important of those reasons are reduction of the bloc’s military budget as a result of the financial crisis, shortage of military assets, absence of operational processes, insufficient cooperation among the member states in the field of weapons, inefficient relationship between NATO and the European Union, strong opposition of the European public opinion to the use of military hardware to settle crises, and dominance of different strategic cultures on the EU member countries.

Under present circumstances and among the above reasons, two factors have had the most severe negative consequences for the EU’s common security and defense policy which include dominance of different strategic cultures and drastic cuts in the member states’ military budgets. In fact, the difference in strategic cultures across the European Union has further deepened the existing gaps with regard to the CSDP. In addition, different understanding of threat among the member states of the EU has served as another factor which has increased the divide among the member states with regard to the CSDP. While the Eastern European states consider Russia as the most dire security threat, the Southern European countries believe that excessive immigration is the most important threat to their security. Most countries in Northern and Western Europe, on the other hand, don’t feel any serious threat.

The financial crisis which is currently sweeping through Europe has also reduced cooperation and coordination among member states of the Union for the implementation of military reforms. As a result of the crisis, NATO’s proposed pooling and sharing initiative has been also unsuccessful. As a consequence of the economic crisis, the defense and security budgets of small European countries have been contracting more than 20 percent while the figure for intermediate countries in Europe is 10-15 percent and only 5 percent for powerful European states. In addition, the member states of the European Union, especially its big powers like Germany, France and Britain, do not trust others when it comes to security and defense issues and are not willing to enter into military cooperation with other countries without due consideration for their own national interests. The failure of the merger of two European arms making giants, EADS and BAE (in fact, among France, Britain and Germany), was good evidence to this fact.


1. Since the Libya crisis, the United States’ preferred policy and diplomatic approach has been to shift the responsibility for the security affairs to Europe and somehow distance from playing the past leading role in the crises that break out in the Middle East and North Africa. The same approach has been also taken by Washington to Syria crisis and the United States is apparently bent on going on with that policy. Up to this day, the European countries have not been able to overcome the existing gaps among them with regard to military affairs and become more independent and self-reliant in this regard without support and leadership of the United States and outside the framework of NATO. Throughout the period following the Cold War, we have witnessed no collective and independent military mission to have been undertaken by the European Union and even the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy has not been able to change this situation.

2. As a result of the current contraction in the European budgets and financial resources, absence of operational processes, lack of a resilient political framework, and other organizational weaknesses, Europe has become increasingly dependent on NATO. As a result, dispatching forces to other countries outside the framework of NATO to carry out large-scale operations has become very difficult and almost impossible even for such powerful members of the EU like France and Britain whose military might is quite striking.

3. The EU states believe that arming rebels in Syria should be done with an eye to the future outlook of the country following possible fall of [the incumbent President Bashar] Assad. The West, they argue, needs to make smart decisions on arming Syria rebels. Libya, however, was a good case which proved that disarming armed rebels at the end of the conflict would be very difficult because when militants gain power, their role and influence in the country also increases in parallel.

4. Due to the aforesaid reasons, it is very improbable that the EU member states would be able to reach an agreement over supplying heavy weapons to the rebels in Syria. Finally, it should be noted that the lack of correct understanding of the existing threats or the feeling of common threat, differences in strategic culture, absence of necessary resources, lack of trust and increasing dependence on NATO as the main mechanism for the management of EU’s hard power concerns, have practically prevented the CSDP from going beyond an ambitious initiative on paper. As a result, the EU member states are currently divided on how to deal with the Syria crisis and will continue to be so in the face of other possible crises which may break out in future.

*Behzad Ahmadi Lafuraki is the director of international relations at Tehran International Studies & Research Institute and analyst of EU and NATO affairs.

Key Words: Syria, Europe, Common Security and Defence Policy, NATO, Sending Arms, Libya, Ahmadi Lafuraki

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