Syria crisis response is test for Europe

 
UN chemical weapons experts at a Syrian hospital on 26 August 2013 UN chemical weapons inspectors are investigating last week attacks in the suburbs of Damascus that left hundreds dead

Over Syria no Western power wishes to intervene, but the rhetoric points to some kind of military response to last week's attacks.

In the world of hard power the old question of who to call in Europe does not surface.

At the weekend US President Barack Obama spoke to UK Prime Minister David Cameron for 40 minutes and then the French president. Only the British and the French have the means and the will to join in a military operation.

But this time the Germans, too, have had a phone call. Recently, the United States has been quietly urging and nudging the Germans to assume a greater leadership role in global affairs.

In the past in Europe the prospect of military action has caused division.

France and Germany opposed the invasion of Iraq. Whilst France and Britain led the campaign against Gaddafi's forces in Libya, the Germans abstained at the UN over intervention. France and Germany differed over Mali.

This time, too, there were some early differences. The French were quick to demand "consequences" for the Assad regime. The German foreign minister said "before speaking of consequences we must first have clarification".

Even so Europe's big three nations may reach agreement over Syria.

Legacy of Iraq

French President Francois Hollande has indicated he would support "targeted military intervention", with a strong hint it will come this week.

Steffen Seibert, the spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said the chemical attack "is a serious breach of the international convention, which categorically bans the use of these weapons. It must be punished; it cannot remain without consequences".

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The Americans and their allies are not out to wage war but can they carry out a limited operation that deters leaders like President Assad in the future? ”

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Initially Berlin had been more cautious, wanting proof not just of a chemical attack but of finding the regime's fingerprints on the operation. There is, however, a gradual recognition that absolute proof may be impossible, although Washington is likely to present fresh evidence of the regime's role later this week.

In these circumstances the EU as an institution struggles to have a voice. As Catherine Ashton, its foreign policy chief, acknowledged, it is difficult for the bloc of 28 members to reach a "joint conclusion".

Some in Europe will bristle at the fact that once again - at a critical moment in international affairs - the EU's role is limited.

Catherine Ashton did underline that it was "extremely important" to get the support of the UN Security Council. That view will get wide support in Europe but in reality it will be extremely difficult to get UN agreement with Russia opposing any outside military action.

Much more likely is for any intervention to be justified legally on humanitarian grounds or by the breach of international conventions on chemical weapons.

The truth is the legacy of Iraq has been hanging over Syria and its civil war.

It is not forgotten that UN inspectors wanted more time to discover whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

President Obama has been reluctant to play the role of the world's policeman.

But in Syria 110,000 people have been killed, double that number have been wounded and there are four to five million refugees.

And the civil war is beginning to draw in neighbouring countries.

There are many in Washington who believe that American inaction has emboldened Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But President Obama had said that the use of chemical weapons would be a game changer and so US credibility is on the line.

Diplomacy may still have a role but all the planning is on how to punish the Assad regime and how to put down a marker that the use of chemical weapons carries consequences.

These days will test Europe; what role will Germany play in any operation? How much support will the Americans get in Europe?

In the midst of all this, the Syrian president reminded Western nations of their recent history.

"Yes, it is true, the great powers can wage wars," he said, "but can they win them?"

The Americans and their allies are not out to wage war but can they carry out a limited operation that deters leaders like President Assad in the future?

 
Gavin Hewitt, Europe editor Article written by Gavin Hewitt Gavin Hewitt Europe editor

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