Europe must act to end Syr­ian cri­sis

Pakistan Observer - - OPINION - Ian Black

EUROPE’S ex­tra­or­di­nary politi cal tur­bu­lence, trig­gered by the Brexit ref­er­en­dum, has caught the at­ten­tion of the world. But the longer-run­ning and far dead­lier cri­sis in the con­ti­nent’s back­yard bleeds on while pre­cious lit­tle is be­ing done to help end it. Syr­i­ans fight­ing to over­throw Bashar al-As­sad are close to de­spair: Russia and Ira­nian in­ter­ven­tion has bol­stered the pres­i­dent’s po­si­tion while Washington and Moscow have moved closer to­gether - per­haps to the point where they will seek to im­pose a so­lu­tion to end the five-year war. The UN dead­line for agree­ment on a “po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion” in Da­m­as­cus is loom­ing on 1 Au­gust.

Europe, ar­gues the coun­try’s main western-backed op­po­si­tion move­ment, can and must do more – how­ever badly it is dis­tracted by prob­lems closer to home. That was the mes­sage it took this week to the EU’s for­eign pol­icy chief, Fed­er­ica Mogherini, who played a key role in last year’s land­mark nu­clear talks with Iran but has failed to make much im­pact on Syria, where 400,000 peo­ple have been killed and mil­lions made home­less. “This last year has proven that Europe is the first con­ti­nent that is pay­ing the price of a lack of se­ri­ous man­age­ment of the Syr­ian cri­sis – be­cause of the refugees and se­cu­rity is­sues, and this is un­likely to stop,” said Basma Kod­mani of the Higher Ne­go­ti­a­tions Com­mit­tee. “Russia has not seen any ter­ror­ist at­tacks – isn’t that in­ter­est­ing?”

The links be­tween Euro­pean in­sta­bil­ity and the car­nage in Syria have never been clearer – the atroc­ity at Istanbul air­port the lat­est grim re­minder. “It is time to ac­knowl­edge the grave cost of in­ac­tion and that what hap­pens in Aleppo re­ver­ber­ates in Molen­beek and London,” com­mented the al-Hayat colum­nist Joyce Karam. “Not recog­nis­ing this re­al­ity will only play into the hands of the Trumps and Farages of the west, who drive – un­op­posed – a nar­ra­tive built on fear, con­tin­ued suf­fer­ing and iso­la­tion­ism.”

In the im­me­di­ate fore­ground is a pos­si­ble re­turn to Geneva, where the UN en­voy Staffan de Mis­tura has over­seen three fruit­less rounds of sep­a­rate “prox­im­ity” talks with both Syr­ian sides and wants them to re­sume in July. Op­ti­mism is in short sup­ply.

In the last round in April As­sad’s ne­go­tia­tors failed to en­gage at all while the rebel team, un­der pres­sure from fight­ers on the ground, walked out in protest against con­tin­u­ing at­tacks and sieges of op­po­si­tion-held ar­eas – and the fail­ure to re­lease thou­sands of de­tainees. The ces­sa­tion of hos­til­i­ties agree­ment bro­kered by the US and Russia in Fe­bru­ary never en­com­passed the whole coun­try. And it has bro­ken down re­peat­edly, with the Rus­sians con­tin­u­ing to bomb rebel tar­gets – very dif­fer­ent from their de­clared aim of fight­ing Isis and Jab­hat al-Nusra.

“We need to ask the Rus­sians some hard ques­tions,” in­sisted Kod­mani. “If you are vi­o­lat­ing the ces­sa­tion of hos­til­i­ties agree­ment you agreed to what is your strat­egy? Do you sup­port As­sad when he says Geneva is dead. Do you think it is dead? We need a re­newed com­mit­ment from Russia on sup­port for a ne­go­ti­ated so­lu­tion.” The EU, the Syr­i­ans hope, can pres­sure Moscow by im­pos­ing tar­geted sanc­tions – on top of those agreed over Ukraine – be­cause of its back­ing for As­sad. The threat of war crimes pros­e­cu­tions – de­spite UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil dead­lock over the use of the in­ter­na­tional crim­i­nal court - is an­other lever, sug­gests the HNC.

The ob­vi­ous re­sponse is that in the cur­rent dis­ar­ray in Europe, with the very fu­ture of the union now at stake, it is a big ask to ex­pect diplo­matic bold­ness, am­bi­tion and unity when they have been so con­spic­u­ously ab­sent be­fore. The band­with is sim­ply not avail­able. “Of course we are aware of Brexit,” Kod­mani said. “If Euro­peans think about the devel­op­ments desta­bil­is­ing the EU they are not be­cause of Syria, but there is some Syria in ev­ery neg­a­tive de­vel­op­ment in the last two years - refugees flee­ing and ji­hadis com­ing and go­ing. That’s only go­ing to grow. It’s an is­sue that is im­pos­ing it­self on Europe. Europe has no choice. And if the UK has left it the EU still needs to prove it is a po­lit­i­cal player on the in­ter­na­tional scene.”

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