Europe must act to end Syrian crisis
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.”