The EU provided humanitarian support to Syria but was both divided and ineffective in supporting either political or military solutions.
As Syria’s civil war intensified in 2013, the EU aimed to negotiate a political transition, avoid complete state breakdown and empower a moderate opposition over extremist forces linked to Al-Qaeda. But Europeans had little success in achieving these objectives. Throughout the year, Europeans were both divided and ineffective and found itself increasingly marginalised, though it has contributed significant humanitarian aid to neighbouring states. On the ground the situation continued to deteriorate and the worst-case scenario increasingly looks like the most likely.
Europeans were divided above all about whether to supply weapons to the Syrian rebels. In May, after France and the UK and French charted their own path on Syria and the EU arms embargo collapsed, any notion of a common approach disappeared. In August, there was a split over possible military action against Syrian response to the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. Again, France and the UK, which wanted to support military action, were on their own. However, the British parliament’s subsequent rejection of military action unintentionally made room for a political agreement to remove chemical weapons brokered by Russia. But divisions between member states highlighted European ineffectiveness as a meaningful actor in the crisis and High Representative Catherine Ashton was apparently unwilling to engage on the issue.
While the Geneva II political process might still get off the ground, Europe cannot be said to be particularly consequential in making this happen. Following the British parliamentary vote, the US government chose to deal unilaterally with Russia on chemical weapons and the advancement of a political process. France, which maintains the most forward-leaning position of any EU member state, has been the most sceptical of engagement with Iran – a necessity for any political solution to the Syria conflict – while supporting an assertive Saudi position. Meanwhile, the opposition movement on which Europe has focused has little influence on the ground.