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International Relations

EU can't send troops but can help Syrian refugees

Anybody expecting the European Union to take decisive action to end the Syria crisis could be left disappointed, experts say. Instead, the bloc will likely pressure Turkey to accept help dealing with refugees.

The crisis between Syria and the European Union's long-time accession candidate Turkey has been intensifying, but security experts have warned of exaggerated expectations as far as possible actions from the EU's bloc of 27 member states to help end the crisis are concerned.

"The matter is being discussed within NATO and within the UN and that's the proper thing to do," said Marc Pierini, a Carnegie Europe visiting scholar and Open Society Forum, Turkey fellow.

NATO member and close ally

European institutions were looking at Turkey as a NATO member and a very close ally, he told DW, "Solidarity is the first thing, secondly there is a humanitarian problem, and whenever there is a humanitarian problem in this scale, the EU is always ready and willing to intervene."

Turkish military stand near the Turkey-Syria border in Akcakale, Turkey, early Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. 
Photo:AP/dapd

The EU isn't prepared to send military support to Turkey

Giles Merritt, Director of Brussels-based think tank Security and Defence Agenda, agreed.

"I don't think you can expect more from the EU; the NATO political aspect is actually much more important," he said, referring to the written statement issued by the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton 14 hours after Turkey attacked Syrian targets on Wednesday (03.10.2012).

In her statement, Ashton strongly condemned Tuesday's shelling by Syrian forces of the Turkish border of Akcakale, which killed five and injured many more civilians, and added that the EU would continue to monitor the situation closely. Numerous EU leaders have publicly condemned the attacks and expressed solidarity with Turkey in recent days. The same goes for Turkey's NATO allies.

There was a uniquely European issue that was adding to the list of touchy political topics that stand in the way of more decisive action from western countries in the current conflict, Merritt added.

"I can't see the EU with all its internal divisions regarding Turkish EU membership and so on and so forth putting it to a vote," he said.

No appetite for intervening

But there was no "appetite for actually intervening" in Syria by any of the EU member states, Merritt added. He dismissed as "saber rattling" statements by Great Britain and France who had said in June that the military option was now on the table to secure safe zones for civilians inside Syria.

"The reality is America cannot be involved at all because of the situation with Iran," Merritt said. "That leaves only the Europeans. Europeans don't have the muscle or the political will or even the moral authority to go barging into Syria to sort things out."

The experts said they believe the EU is, therefore, left with focusing its efforts on sanctions against the Syrian political and commercial elite, as well as on stepping up funding to assist in dealing with the consequences of the civil war.

A Syrian child at a refugee camp in Jordan
Copyright: Save the Children

European countries could propose helping with the humanitarian situation in and around Syria

The European Commission has already spent 69 million euros ($90 million) in humanitarian aid for internally displaced people in Syria, Iraqi and Palestinian refugees in Syria and Syrian refugees in the neighboring countries Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. An additional package of 50 million euros was approved in late September. The funds are currently being allocated.

Turkey reluctant to seek assistance

The EU as well as international organizations could play a bigger role in helping neighboring countries deal with the humanitarian situation, said Carnegie Europe scholar Pierini, who has had postings as the EU ambassador to Turkey and Syria. But so far, the Turkish government in particular has been reluctant to request assistance.

The problem, said Pierini, is that "the Turkish authorities want to keep total control on the ground."

"We understand some of the reasons for these security measures, but at the same time you've never seen EU institutions spend hundreds of millions of public money without having some people on the ground," he added.

International NGOs, which are the standard providers of assistance, and the UN agencies have not played the same role in Turkey as they have in Syria's other neighboring countries, such as Jordan. Turkey is managing the camps for the refugees itself and is estimated to have spent more than $300 million on them.

A Jordanian army car carrying Syrian refugees fleeing violence in their country after they crossed into Jordanian territory with their families from Syria into Jordan, near the town of Ramtha September 15, 2012. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

NGOs are active in Jordan and Syria's other neighbors, but so far Turkey hasn't requested help

A problem could arise if Turkey did decide to ask for more help from its partners, said Pierini.

"It's obvious to me that if the numbers are going to increase further, Turkey cannot say to the rest of the world, "Send me a check and I'll manage the money,'" he said, adding that Turkey would have to allow the United Nations refugee agency to become active on the ground.

Collaboration is good - for now

But Turkish newspaper Hürriyet Daily News wrote in its English online edition in late September that Turkey has refused to accept assistance from dozens of NGOs, claiming this would create a security and order problem.

"We do not want to make any exception for any NGO because once we open the doors to one, we'll end up having more than 100 NGOs asking to come," the paper quoted a Turkish official as saying.

The UN seems to be satisfied with the way Turkey is handling the situation. Collaboration with Turkey was intense and good, said Syble Wilkes from UNHCR.

"The ideal situation is that a country can deal with the problems itself, and Turkey has camps of the highest standards," she told DW. "The prerogative is that the refugees are protected."

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