As unrest continues, how can Europe secure its southern flank?
22 June 2012
Richard Gowan, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, looks at the instability arising beyond Europe's southernmost extremes
While European leaders focus on saving the eurozone, a troubling series of small wars and major humanitarian crises have blown up along the European Union's southern flank. Although Syria has seized international attention, Islamist rebels have taken control of northern Mali while violence has continued in Libya and Yemen. Sudan and South Sudan, which separated only one year ago, have come close to an all-out war. These conflicts seem distant and difficult to understand, but they pose real dangers for Europe. Yemen has already been a base for terrorists and Mali could be too.
Meanwhile, the Syrian crisis has demonstrated the limits of European power. The EU has built up wide-ranging sanctions on Damascus and European diplomats have lobbied for a United Nations Security Council resolution on the crisis for a year. Yet Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad has ignored all the economic and political pressure, and thousands have been killed. Europe's ability to intervene directly in the multiple crises on its southern flank is limited. French Special Forces have targeted Islamists in the Maghreb, but neither the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation nor the EU is going to send a large-scale military stabilisation mission to Mali.
The Afghan war has left politicians and generals sceptical about getting tangled up in guerrilla wars. Even if they were enthusiastic, there is no money for operations. But the new generation of crises cannot be allowed to burn out of control. The violence in Mali and Libya could easily spread into Niger and Mauritania. If Syria collapses into chaos, it might well spill over into Lebanon and even Iraq and Jordan. While the EU and NATO hang back, other crisis managers are taking responsibility for events in North Africa and the Middle East. The Arab League and UN have deployed observers to Syria. And UN peacekeepers are on the frontlines in South Sudan.
In Somalia - another haven for Islamist forces as well as pirates - African Union troops are fighting a tough campaign to secure territory for the weak government. The West African organization, ECOWAS, has offered to send 3,000 soldiers to Mali. All of these organisations are short on resources and risk overstretch. The Arab League and UN missions to Syria have had little effect on the slide into civil war, although the UN observers have made a bold attempt to chronicle recent massacres. The AU mission in Somalia has had to rely on huge amounts of external assistance and funding to keep going. And ECOWAS lacks the assets necessary to wage a campaign in the deserts of northern Mali. These bodies need all the help they can get.
The EU and NATO can supply some of that help, and should invest in doing so to contribute to security on Europe's southern flank. Despite their current resource constraints, European militaries have assets - like drones - that the UN and AU lack. The EU has helped the AU and UN in places like Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo. And EU military trainers are building up the Somali army, complementing the AU's more direct intervention. Also, EU vessels hunt Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. The EU can find other ways to help these partners - and new crisis managers like the Arab League - make their peace operations more effective. In future, Europe could deploy teams of engineers to build camps for the UN in inhospitable terrain, for example, or give intelligence from drones to African or Arab peacekeepers.
Europe can also offer civilians with expertise in areas like border management to work inside UN missions. And NATO can give logistical back-up to non-Western forces. Similar sorts of cooperation have already developed in the field: the EU and the UN have built up solid working relationships in cases from the Congo to Kosovo. Institutional rivalries have got in the way, but cooperation has improved over time. The European External Action Service has developed a new action plan for improving support to the UN, which the EU's Political and Security Committee is discussing this month. This is a useful initiative, and one that should be extended. The PSC should ask for further plans for enhancing EU support to regional crisis managers such as the Arab League, which often lack experience and equipment.
European officials like to talk about their support for "effective multilateralism", so working with other crisis management organisations should come naturally. But it is not always that simple. Political differences over the Libyan war have soured relations between the AU, EU and NATO. Europe's ability to help the UN in Syria is limited by the fact that China and Russia have set limits on what the UN is able to do. But the EU and NATO have little choice but work with those collectives that are still prepared to deploy missions to places like Mali and Somalia. The alternative is to let crises deteriorate, making Europe's neighbourhood a more dangerous place. This article first appeared on sister site PublicServiceEurope.com