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European intervention in Syria

September 27, 2013

As the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the chemical weapons watch dog of the United Nations, sits poised to resume its investigation of chemical weapon use in Syria next Tuesday, it is worth considering the role European countries have played in this hard-won decision handed down by the international community. As the conflict in Syria has endured over the past 2 years, especially with the most recent accusations that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons, Europe has failed to show a united front in its influence within the international community. Such fissures reveal deep-seated divisions in the European vision, leaving the region, once again, with little relative influence in the realm of international decision-making.


The accusations of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government came to a head on August 21 of this year as reports and video emerged from the Ghouta agricultural belt around the capital city of Damascus of a widespread chemical attack. In the days following the attack, the United States, France, Doctors Without Borders, and the UN Human Rights Watch variously published reports on the evidence of a chemical attack, concluding that the neurotoxin sarin had almost undoubtedly been used against the Syrian people. Estimates of the death toll from that day vary widely between reports, but the destruction of life was clearly widespread. The United States reacted with outrage, calling for an international response up to full military intervention.


Onto this stage of outspoken condemnation, some of the most powerful European states emerged with a mixed message of support and hesitation. The most strongly “hawkish” state to step forth was France, with President François Hollande saying he would support a “targeted military intervention” along with the United States. The United Kingdom, however, has rejected military intervention with a Parliamentary vote, though Prime Minister David Cameron has expressed his support of a strong international response. Germany, meanwhile, has expressed its unwillingness to act unless “incontrovertible” proof can be produced as to the Syrian government’s involvement in the use of chemical weapons.


These divisions reveal the seemingly irreconcilable disagreements between three of Europe’s most powerful states in the realm of foreign policy, an issue that has plagued those advocating an “ever-closer union” within the EU. This state of limbo for the EU has also seen it largely sidelined in big decisions within the international community, with the United States and Russia seemingly leading discussion in the UN Security Council, despite the permanent chairs also held by France and the United Kingdom. As the UN inspection resumes next week, questions remain as to what response will be mounted by the international community if the UN report reveals positive findings for the outlawed chemical weapons. Europe, then, will have to make a decision of support or neutrality, though it seems increasingly improbable that such a decision will be made on a united front.

hands off syria

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