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Why Doesn't the EU Have a Strategy for Syria?

03/05/2016 16:32

The fragile ceasefire in Syria, brokered by the US and Russia in February, now hangs in the balance. After several months of relative calm in western parts of the country, the Assad regime has now renewed its bombing campaign in civilian areas under the control of rebels around Aleppo and to the east of Damascus.

Monitoring groups' estimate that at least 250 people have been killed since the start this new offensive, with tens of thousands of civilians fleeing. While the US takes steps to seek an urgent resumption of the ceasefire, it now seems Russia is diplomatically supportive of the Syrian Government's attempts to change the goalposts of the Syrian ceasefire; turning it from a country wide truce, to regional ceasefires. This is a worrying development, as it will be even harder to keep more moderate forces engaged in peace talks if they continue to be attacked.

After the recent violence and as concerns about the collapse of the Geneva talks grow, the EU's High Representative Federica Mogherini issued a statement saying that "pressure should be brought on all parties to respect the cessation of hostilities, to resume talks in good faith and make the work of the UN Special Envoy in facilitating agreement between the Syrian parties possible." Reading this, I found myself asking: where is the EU strategy for Syria?

EU Member States, or indeed Federica Mogherini, have done little in recent months to increase the EU's leverage over the key actors involved in this proxy war. There is no EU plan, which is remarkable given the extent to which this conflict directly impacts on the security and stability of Europe. As is often the case, the EU strategy seems to be to hope for the best and rely on the will of US and Russian diplomats to find a solution for us. Once again, it seems this "strategy" may fail us. So what should the key elements of an EU strategy for Syria look like?

The reality is President Assad is only capable of killing in such volumes because of the vital military support he is receiving from Russia and Iran. The EU, however, has done nothing to put pressure on Russia to respect UNSC resolution 2254, which Moscow itself voted for and commits all parties to immediately cease any attacks against civilian targets and urges all Member States to support efforts to achieve a ceasefire.

For many months, I have been calling for the preparation of fresh EU sanctions which Russia would have to face, if it continues bombing civilians or continues to support Assad in his bombing campaign. Instead, there are growing calls from some EU member states for existing EU sanctions against the Kremlin, linked to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, to be lifted when they are reviewed on the 31st July. Instead of using its economic clout to put pressure on Vladimir Putin, there is a risk of Europe slipping into reverse gear.

Likewise in its relations with Iran, the EU has done little to develop instruments to motivate and push its leadership to abide by the UNSC resolution it signed up to. After the successful conclusion of the nuclear deal and lifting of sanctions, EU Member States are now engaging in a race for valuable commercial contracts in Iran. It is about time the EU developed a strategy which would make EU investments and economic cooperation conditional on Teheran's full support for the Syrian peace process. Here again, the EU is missing the opportunity to play a role in securing a lasting ceasefire in Syria.

Last but not least, the EU's failure to agree and implement a collective response to the refugee crisis has forced EU leaders to instead sign a dubious migration agreement with Turkey, which dramatically increases the EU's dependence on Ankara. This is regrettable
as Turkey is an important regional actor in the ongoing Syrian proxy war. Turkey continues to support some of the rebels in Syria, while at the same time vetoing the participation of Kurdish PYD representatives at the Geneva talks, even though their military wing is fighting Daesh. It's vital the EU lessens this dependency on Turkey, by improving its migration management capacities. This will increase the EU's influence over Turkey's policy in Syria.

Not only does has the EU failed to develop a response to the refugee crisis, it's increasingly clear that the EU has no strategy to help deliver a political settlement for the Syrian crisis. Given the chaos that the refugee crisis has caused Europe, this amounts to a diplomatic dereliction of duty. We are now empty handed as we helplessly watch the Syrian ceasefire unravel.

Instead of sitting back, crossing our fingers and hoping for an end to the Syrian civil war, the EU should be uniting to heap pressure on those regional powers blocking the path to peace. Never before has a continent with so much invested in the stability of its surrounding regions, been so reluctant to project its power and defend its interests.

Guy Verhofstadt is the former Prime Minister of Belgium and leader of the Liberal and Democrat group in the European Parliament

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