You are here

No time to lose in Syria

Sep 29,2015 - Last updated at Sep 29,2015

The arrival of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children seeking refuge from conflict has confronted the European Union with two stark realities.

First, its member states are not all meeting their obligations, both to one another and according to international law. Second, its position regarding Syria’s civil war is unsustainable.

To be clear, failing to work towards peace in Syria is just as grave an error as turning away those fleeing from persecution.

The defects in Europe’s asylum legislation and the difference among its member states’ practices have been evident for some time. But the 350,000 refugees who crossed European borders, and the more than 2,600 who drowned trying to reach them, in the first eight months of this year have opened our eyes. The inhumane conditions these refugees face are unacceptable.

Now, on top of the so-called “north-south” split that emerged from the economic crisis, the United Kingdom’s potential exit from the EU, and the critical situation in Greece, a new breach, between east and west, has appeared in Europe.

The EU cannot afford any more cracks. Therefore, it must use all possible means to compel its members to abide by their international and European legal obligations.

That same urgency must be applied to peacemaking in Syria; after all, the refugees are a product of the country’s long, brutal, multi-sided civil war.

The seriousness of the situation in Syria cannot be overstated. Since the conflict began in 2011, it has produced more than 4 million refugees, and approximately 8 million internally displaced people.

More than 200,000 people have died. To put that in perspective: more than half of the 22 million people living in Syria in 2011 are either dead or displaced.

Control of Syria’s territory is now divided between President Bashar Assad’s regime, various armed opposition groups, the Kurds, and Daesh. The civil war has enabled the extremist Daesh to build up its capacity to the point that, if the Syrian regime were to collapse entirely, the group would likely be able to take advantage of the power vacuum to seize control of the entire country. Nonetheless, Russia’s claim that Syria faces a choice between Assad or Daesh is false. Suspicions about Russia’s intentions have lately ballooned, as the country allegedly steps up its aid to the Assad regime, a longtime ally, and calls increasingly loudly for cooperation with the regime to combat Daesh.

While Russia’s emphasis on keeping Assad in power is likely driven by its own interests in retaining influence in the Middle East, it is right about one thing: Daesh must be stopped.

And it is a grave mistake to think that this can be achieved without a political solution to the conflict in Syria — the conflict that enabled the organisation’s explosive growth.

Only if external powers think beyond military operations and devise a political solution to the crisis can the fight against Daesh succeed.

Such a political solution must, first and foremost, reflect an understanding of past errors and a commitment not to repeat them.

Recall that in Iraq, the attempt to rebuild the state began with the complete dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s regime and all existing governance structures.

The power vacuum that this approach produced was filled by Sunni militias and, ultimately, Daesh. For Syria, this means that part of the existing state, including Assad’s Alawite sect, should be included in a broad coalition, along with the opposition and the Kurds. Without such broad representation, no Syrian government can hope to defeat terrorist forces and lead the country toward a more stable future.

Of course, implementing such a solution will not be easy — not least because of sharp divisions among relevant external powers. Like Russia, Iran — which will be crucial to the success of any solution — backs the regime. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar are unwilling to support any solution that includes Assad.

This deadlock cannot persist. And, fortunately, it doesn’t have to. All crises end in the same way: with all parties sitting at the negotiating table. That must be the goal in Syria now.

This is where EU leadership can prove vital. Exercising it will require EU member states to maintain a common position, supporting the efforts of the United Nations special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, to work with all relevant players — including the EU, the United States, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia — to achieve peace in Syria.

A good place to start would be by urging the so-called E3/EU+3 group — that is, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the US and the UK), Germany and the EU — to convene.

Given that these countries recently managed to overcome their strong differences to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran, this might be the right forum to begin building consensus on a political solution in Syria.

Negotiations could subsequently progress to include other major actors, especially Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey.

Syria is out of time. Its people have been besieged by brutality and mayhem for far too long; they can find respite in far too few countries; and they are being forced to undertake journeys that are far too dangerous.

The UN General Assembly cannot end its 70th session without taking decisive steps towards effective negotiations — and an effective solution.

The world, urged by the EU, must work to bring peace to Syria now, and to establish a strong state capable of guaranteeing peace in the future.



The writer was EU high representative for foreign and security policy, secretary general of NATO, and foreign minister of Spain. He is currently president of the ESADE Centre for Global Economy and Geopolitics and distinguished fellow at the Brookings Institution. ©Project Syndicate, 2015.

101 users have voted.


Get top stories and blog posts emailed to you each day.