Inaction also has its price and it is high time to get out of it because… Let us recall the chain of events that led to the chaos that is taking place on the borders of Europe. In Syria, in spite of France, Barack Obama did not want to enforce the red lines that he himself had drawn for Bashar Al-Assad. His successor then largely withdrew from the Middle East while Europe decided not to act on its own. Russia rushed into this vacuum to regain a foothold in the region alongside the regimes in Damascus and Teheran.
Russia again became a global player while the Western democracies were retreating and Vladimir Putin decided to end the Syrian conflict. Idlib, on the Turkish border, that last pocket of opposition where 900,000 displaced people had found refuge under the relative protection of Turkish outposts, Idlib was to fall.
In an airspace controlled by the Russian army, the Syrian air force began bombing these 900,000 unfortunate people, who were trapped in a net, without hospitals, without supplies, without the possibility of escape, because Turkey had closed its border and…
Well, nothing, still nothing, because, apart from France and, a little bit, Germany, no one has done anything, and that is how we arrived at the latest consequence of European and American inaction.
Recep Erdogan has decided to avenge the Syrian-Russian assault on his outposts. He took up the gauntlet, retaliated the Syrian strikes and thus responded to Russia and, in order to get us Europeans to act, he is now letting the refugees he promised to keep on his territory walk towards Greece.
Because it seemed less costly, we preferred inaction to action, but we can no longer remain passive, we the 27 Member States of the European Union. The Union can no longer, at the same time, be guilty of failing to help 900,000 people in danger, allow conflicts to multiply at its borders, assume such passivity, shout about its non-existence and end up letting itself be dragged into what it fears so much: the return of History and wars.
With 27 states and even 28 if Great Britain joined us, we have enough means to close the skies of this region to Syrian aviation and, to kill four birds with one stone, put an end to the martyrdom of the displaced persons of Idlib, put an end to the Syrian-Turkish clashes, rule out the possibility of a Russian-Turkish conflict and lead Turkey to renounce its blackmail over the opening of its borders with the Union.
It would not be a question of overthrowing the Syrian regime or not. It would not mean going to war with them, but this interference, which humanity and our interests command, would, it is a fact, put us face to face with Russia, which is now the master of the Syrian sky. There is a balance of power and it is so much to our disadvantage that European air forces would not have the means to intervene without the mobilisation of American resources by NATO.
At a time when Donald Trump is withdrawing from everywhere, it would certainly not be easy to convince him to intervene at our side. It would not be indispensable and could even be counterproductive, but at least we can convince the United States that by refusing us their logistical support, it is them who would make NATO obsolete.
The Americans would hear this, and the drama of Idlib and its consequences would thus demonstrate the differences in priorities between the United States and the European Union, the resulting need for Europe’s strategic autonomy and the need for the Atlantic Alliance to continue to exist, within which there must now be a division of labour between its American and European pillars.
For us Europeans, this crisis is a test.
Do we have enough clear-sightedness to understand the dangers that this chaos on the borders of Europe can drag us into? Do we have the will to take on the responsibilities that this implies? Enough unity to make the Union exist in the face of the challenges that threaten it?
We do not know. I do not know, but I am certain that it would not be in our interest to make a mockery out of our principles of humanity by disregarding the fate of the 900 000 people from Idlib, or to allow two new wars to develop at our borders, or to see the extreme right making a big deal over new influxes of refugees, or to tear ourselves once again between countries which respect the right of asylum and regimes which see this as nothing more than old-fashioned practices.
If you ignore the fire, it will take over you, and it would certainly not be in our interest not even to be able to mobilise our forces at a time when we are finally acknowledging the need for a European defence. We are starting to work on a tank and a fighter aircraft. There are Estonian soldiers in Mali and French soldiers in Estonia. Not even in Warsaw, the idea of a common defence is not challenged anywhere anymore and would we not find the common will, not even among a few, to go and organise a no-fly zone over Idlib?
If we renounce it, let us immediately renounce any ambition to exist. Let us become, but without the right to vote, American subjects or vassals of China and “the marches” of Russia. Let us no longer speak of a united Europe because, in the end, let us look at the world.
Emmanuel Macron has offended more than one capital by noting the “brain death” of NATO, but what would it mean if the Atlantic Alliance left the second of its armies, the Turkish army, alone against the Russian army without which Bashar al-Assad could never have been able to move against the Turks?
Many will no doubt say that, very well, perfect, that Recep Erdogan gets only what he deserves and tough luck for this dictator, who gets always crazier and crazier by the day, but no! It should then be noted that there is no more NATO at all, that it is not brain dead but plain dead since there is no longer a pilot in Washington, there is no Europe to know how to react when there is a threat, and there is even less a Europe of Defence.
Attention! If we do nothing, if we do not react more than we did in Georgia yesterday and Ukraine today, then we will have informed the Kremlin that nothing is forbidden, because the White House is elsewhere and we do not have the audacity to exist.
That is how we go to war, and under the worst conditions. That is also how we would certainly miss the opportunity to open discussions with Russia on the search for a modus vivendi between the two pillars of the European continent, the European Union and the Russian Federation. We must, of course, talk to the Russian President. That is necessary. It is increasingly essential to seek with him ways of coexistence and then cooperation, but for that we need a strong Union. We need to be able to talk on an equal footing with the largest country in the world, and it is not by letting them do what they did in Idlib that we will succeed.
Bernard Guetta – MEP, Renew Group, Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee
This article was published on Libération.fr on 2 March 2020