Analysis: What are Europe’s options in war-torn Syria?

The failure to dissolve the Assad regime, along with Islamic State, might very well create a Syria without Syrians.

Syrian migrants queue with others to buy a ticket for a ferry trip to Athens from the Greek island of Lesbos  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrian migrants queue with others to buy a ticket for a ferry trip to Athens from the Greek island of Lesbos
(photo credit: REUTERS)
With European leaders scrambling to contain a growing Syrian refugee crisis within EU borders, there are now fresh initiatives for military intervention in Syria. France’s Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced Wednesday that his country will launch military strikes “in the coming weeks” for the first time in Syria.
While the French government said the military action is designed to stop the spread of Islamic State and eliminate terrorists planning to return to France to launch attacks, there are signs of linkage between interventionism and the refugee crisis.
Europe’s POLITICO web site reported a French government source saying, “There is a more indirect link if you consider that this will have an impact on the stabilization of Syria and a possible way out of the war, which would have an impact on the migrants.
Right now, in refugee camps all around Syria, there are millions of people waiting and wondering what to do: whether they should attempt the journey to Europe or wait for better times at home.”
French President François Hollande, who was an advocate of missile strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime in 2013, has showed no renewed appetite to confront Assad. Syria’s regime has killed eight times as many refugees as Islamic State. The death toll in the Syrian civil war since the outbreak of the pro-democracy movement in 2011 has reached 250,000 with no end in sight.
According to a French IFOP survey, 56 percent of those asked approve of a “boots on the ground” strategy as part of a coalition in Syria. And in a sign of optimism about the efficacy of military action, 58% believe Islamic State can be destroyed.
In sharp contrast to France, Germany’s Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen told ZDF television that she opposes a military engagement in Syria.
“If one went in with troops on the ground, one would strike the wrong group.” She envisions Germany’s army managing the administration of Syrian refugees in Germany.
She warned about a “very simple solution” to solve the Syrian civil war and issued the standard nebulous German plea for international diplomacy to prevail.
Yet there is pressure in her Christian Democratic Union party to intervene. Roland Heintze, a member of the CDU executive board, told the Bild paper, “We must protect the people on the ground in Syria. And that can only be done militarily, with an international mandate.”
The director of the Munich Security Conference, Wolfgang Ischinger, echoed Heintze’s comment in an interview in the Münchner Merkur daily.
“Our strategy in the Syrian crisis in only credible if the strategy is based on credible military action options. The EU must be able to talk seriously about questions regarding protective zones for the millions of refugees.”
Ischinger said, “We have falsely looked away for four years.”
Germany’s pacifist post- World War II culture presents a paradox. The lack of military action contributes to the spread of Islamic State and enables Assad to carry out the barrel bombing of his population.
It took spectacular violence to end Nazism but most Germans have not internalized the lesson of the need for military methods to defeat terrorist movements.
Assad’s key role in producing the Syrian refugee crisis has not been front and center in European capitals. In a Wall Street Journal article titled “Assad’s Regime Fans Refugee Crisis,” Sam Dagher, a correspondent formally based in Syria, wrote: “The West has focused largely on those fleeing Islamic State and its atrocities, but Mr. Assad’s regime hasn’t relented with the intimidation and force it has used since the start of the conflict more than four years ago: detention, torture and mandatory drafting into the army for military-age men, along with starvation and an aerial bombing campaign of opposition-held areas. His government has also offered subtle incentives to leave, such as an easier time obtaining a Syrian passport and less hassle booking flights to foreign countries.”
Assad, who has used a war of starvation against his population and rebel groups, appears to be now employing a war of eviction.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said last week, “It’s very difficult, but if all these refugees come to Europe or elsewhere, then Daesh [Arabic for Islamic State] has won the game. The objective [of this conference] is that the Middle East remains the Middle East, that means a region of diversity where there are Christians, Yazidis, etc.”
Syria, a former French mandate, remains a foreign priority for France’s government.
Yet the failure to dissolve the Assad regime, along with Islamic State, might very well create a Syria without Syrians.
Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.