‘What would you do? Leave, prob­a­bly.’

The E.U.’s head of for­eign af­fairs talks about Syr­ian refugees with The Post’s Lally Wey­mouth

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @Lal­lyWey­mouth Lally Wey­mouth is a se­nior as­so­ciate editor at The Washington Post.

Fed­er­ica Mogherini, the Euro­pean Union’s head of for­eign af­fairs and se­cu­rity pol­icy, thought she had a tough job help­ing to steer the Iran nu­clear deal. But the Syr­ian refugee cri­sis has proved even more dif­fi­cult. Vis­it­ing the U.N. Gen­eral Assem­bly in New York this past week, she told The Washington Post that Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad has to go — but not be­fore he helps engi­neer peace in his coun­try. Edited ex­cerpts fol­low.

The Euro­pean Union is try­ing to solve the on­go­ing refugee cri­sis. Howdo you see the sit­u­a­tion?

We have had an in­crease in the flow both of refugees and mi­grants over the last six months. This is not just a Euro­pean cri­sis; it is a re­gional and global cri­sis. If you look at the num­ber of Syr­i­ans, you have 8 mil­lion in­ter­nally dis­placed peo­ple still in Syria and 4 mil­lion in Tur­key, Le­banon and Jor­dan. You have some­thing like 350,000 refugees in Europe.

How­big is the flow of refugees world­wide?

A big ma­jor­ity of the peo­ple who are mov­ing— the mi­grants and refugees— are within Africa. One num­ber tells ev­ery­thing: The per­cent­age of refugees of the to­tal pop­u­la­tion of Europe is 0.1 per­cent. In Le­banon, it is 25 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion. We have to put things in per­spec­tive. The is­sue is man­age­able for us Euro­peans.

At an E.U. meet­ing last week, you de­cided to al­lo­cate a cer­tain num­ber of refugees among the E.U. coun­tries.

Yes, [we will] share the re­spon­si­bil­ity among the 28 dif­fer­ent mem­ber states for 160,000 refugees. So it will not only be the first coun­try where they land that takes re­spon­si­bil­ity but all the oth­ers to­gether.

The E.U. will di­vide up 160,000 refugees, but you said there are 350,000 in all. What hap­pens to the rest?

We re­ceive peo­ple who are com­ing to the front-line coun­tries— mainly Greece and Italy — to see if they are en­ti­tled to refugee sta­tus. For those not en­ti­tled to pro­tec­tion, there are pro­grams to re­turn them back home.

In the E.U., a refugee is en­ti­tled to asy­lum in the first coun­try in which he or she lands. That rule was over­whelmed by num­bers. But why has the E.U. al­lowed refugees to be taken by traf­fick­ers and walked across the Balkans? Why was there no pro­ce­dure put in place to process them?

The traf­fick­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions mainly [bring peo­ple] from the coun­tries where they live, be it Syria or Libya, to the Euro­pean coasts. In these last months, the num­bers were so high that it was phys­i­cally im­pos­si­ble in most cases for Euro­pean states to prop­erly iden­tify, re­ceive and process all the re­quests. And peo­ple move. So there was a flow, es­pe­cially through the Balkans.

Things ap­peared to be very chaotic when Hungary be­gan putting up fences.

It was painful to see fences or walls built in Europe when our history was built on open borders, bring­ing down walls and build­ing open so­ci­eties.

You say the refugee cri­sis is a global and re­gional phe­nom­e­non. Howdo you feel the United States and the West have done in help­ing to solve it?

The E.U. has spent around 10 bil­lion eu­ros. One way in which the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity could help more is to in­crease fi­nan­cial sup­port to in­ter­na­tional agen­cies and to the coun­tries that are host­ing a big num­ber of refugees. I am [also] con­vinced that in­ter­na­tional part­ners could take more refugees for re­set­tle­ment. The big­gest work we have to do to­gether— es­pe­cially with the United States— is to try to solve the con­flicts in Syria and Libya. These are the main sources of in­sta­bil­ity that pro­voke a big refugee flow.

Doyou think the first step is to try and stop Pres­i­dent As­sad’s bar­rel bombs or to es­tab­lish a no-fly zone in Syria for the op­po­si­tion? Must the Is­lamic State be elim­i­nated? Does As­sad have to go?

I don’t think it is re­al­is­tic to imag­ine that any refugee that es­caped from Syria— from both the regime and ISIL— is go­ing back any­time soon un­less he or she sees a po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion to the con­flict in Syria.

That means the end of As­sad?

No, that means en­gag­ing in a po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion— a process where all Syr­ian par­ties, regime rep­re­sen­ta­tives and op­po­si­tion, come to­gether and elab­o­rate a com­mon tran­si­tion plan for the coun­try. Ob­vi­ously that ex­cludes ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions like [Jab­hat] al-Nusra and ISIL. We are work­ing with the U.N. to try to or­ga­nize a po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion in Syria, with the re­gional and in­ter­na­tional ac­tors.

Howare you do­ing this?

Iran, for ex­am­ple, has a lot of in­flu­ence on the regime. I think they un­der­stand that this is go­ing to be their first test to see if they can play a con­struc­tive role af­ter the [nu­clear] deal.

But isn’t Iran keep­ing the Syr­ian

regime in power?

If we want [Syria’s] regime to come to the ta­ble to work on a tran­si­tion, we need to bring pres­sure on it from those that have in­flu­ence on it, which is Rus­sia and Iran.

Howdo you feel about Rus­sia’s re­cent es­tab­lish­ment of a mil­i­tary pres­ence in Syria? Is Rus­sia there to shore up Pres­i­dent As­sad, not to co­op­er­ate in a tran­si­tion?

From what I un­der­stand, Rus­sia’s main worry is that there could be a com­plete col­lapse of the state struc­tures in Syria, some­thing sim­i­lar to what hap­pened in Libya, and that would en­dan­ger even the idea of hav­ing a tran­si­tion. I think ev­ery­body re­al­izes it would be im­pos­si­ble to have a fu­ture role for As­sad in Syria. But a tran­si­tion means you have the regime present at the ta­ble. Imag­ine what hap­pens if Damascus falls, in terms of refugees.

Doyou think that is likely?

I don’t have enough ev­i­dence to say. On the other hand, Rus­sia is tak­ing its seat at the ta­ble, say­ing, “I am here and will be part of the process.”

An­dit wants to en­sure its own mil­i­tary bases.

There is a mil­i­tary com­po­nent, but we Euro­peans are con­vinced that there is no purely mil­i­tary so­lu­tion to the war.

What about As­sad’s bar­rel bombs? Aren’t they driv­ing the pop­u­la­tion out?

Peo­ple are leav­ing Syria for many rea­sons. The two main ones are the at­tacks by the regime and by Daesh [the Ara­bic acro­nym for the Is­lamic State]. We have to con­sider that the Syr­ian pop­u­la­tion is mid­dle class and well ed­u­cated. So af­ter 41/ years of war— squeezed

2 be­tween the at­tacks of the regime and the atroc­i­ties of Daesh— what would you do? Leave, prob­a­bly.

What about the pro­posed cre­ation of a “no fly” zone in Syria, where both the pop­u­la­tion and op­po­si­tion could live? Do you fa­vor this?

I will tell you openly: If I were a Syr­ian mother liv­ing in one of the neigh­bor­ing coun­tries, hav­ing seen the atroc­i­ties back home, I would not feel re­as­sured that I could go back to any safe zone. I don’t think it is re­al­is­tic to call them “safe” un­less we have an end to the con­flict and to Daesh. If refugees now liv­ing in Tur­key hear there is a prospect for them to be sent back to Syria, they might run away rather than go back.

They might run to Europe?

Yes. The only way of en­sur­ing safe zones would be a sub­stan­tial pres­ence on the ground in an area in the north­ern part of Syria. I am­not sure it is a re­al­is­tic op­tion.

Is solv­ing Syria more dif­fi­cult than the Iran nu­clear deal?

Def­i­nitely. But through the Iran deal, we showed that even the most com­pli­cated and im­pos­si­ble prob­lem could be [solved] through diplo­macy. It took us 12 years, but we got there. This is more dif­fi­cult. Diplo­macy can work. Four and a half years [of war] have not brought re­sults: As­sad is still there, and Daesh is still there.

Doyou blame the United States in part for the sit­u­a­tion in Syria?

No blame at all. You men­tioned the Iran deal. I’m con­fi­dent the U.S. lead­er­ship will con­tinue in that di­rec­tion.

Doyou worry that the refugee cri­sis will fuel the rise of na­tion­al­ism within Europe?

The U.S. has been built on dif­fer­ent groups com­ing to­gether, whereas Europe has been a ho­moge­nous so­ci­ety, not a melt­ing pot. If we come out of this with an un­der­stand­ing that be­ing dif­fer­ent is a plus and not a threat, we will grow as Euro­peans. We need po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship brave enough to pass that mes­sage to the peo­ple.

In the year of Char­lie Hebdo and other at­tacks in Europe by Is­lamic ex­trem­ists, won’t some fear that the refugees will in­clude a few ter­ror­ists?

The at­tacks in Europe were not done by for­eign­ers. They were done by Euro­pean cit­i­zens. We also have a good num­ber of Euro­pean fight­ers in Daesh. It doesn’t help our se­cu­rity to panic about some­thing that is not real.


Above: A fighter with the Free Syr­ian Army, one of sev­eral rebel groups bat­tling the forces of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar alAs­sad.

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