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No more Aleppo

Jan 04,2015 - Last updated at Jan 04,2015

It has been nearly four years since the first uprisings in Damascus and the beginning of the Syrian civil war. Across the country, more than 240,000 people have died.

Another 7.5 million have lost their homes or fled the country, becoming refugees.

Syria is drowning in a bloody, cruel and pointless conflict. It is time to say “enough” — starting in the devastated city of Aleppo.

Bringing the fighting to a halt will not be easy. It will require the coordination and cooperation of regional and global rivals.

But the chance to forge a ceasefire is not only an opportunity to end a humanitarian disaster; it could also mark the beginning of a new approach to resolving and preventing crises elsewhere.

Aleppo is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world — and one of the bloodiest battlegrounds in the war. The ancient walled city is one of Syria’s six UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Much of it has already been irreversibly damaged. Today, Aleppo is under rebel control — surrounded by the Syrian army. Militants loyal to the Islamic State (IS) lie in wait a few dozen kilometres away.

The series of international failures in this conflict so far is inexcusable. Each subsequent breakdown in negotiations, including the Geneva talks, has not only led away from peace, but has also contributed to calamitous developments, including the resurgence of extremist terrorism and the emergence of IS.

A ceasefire in Aleppo cannot be postponed any further. Enormous humanitarian efforts will be needed to address the catastrophic situation the war has left, and UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura’s immense dedication will be critical.

Fortunately, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s two main allies, Iran and Russia, have reasons for seeking a ceasefire.

Falling oil prices and economic sanctions have affected both countries.

Iran increasingly feels drained by the economic support it gives to the Syrian army and to Hizbollah in Lebanon, while Russia’s authorities, now also confronting a currency crisis, are battling the perfect storm.

Both countries also have reasons to demonstrate that they can contribute to regional and global stability — Iran, especially, as international negotiations over its nuclear programme are at a critical stage.

If Russia and Iran threaten to withdraw support, Assad will have no option other than to come to the table.

However, the biggest obstacle to a ceasefire is the same one that presented itself during negotiations over Syria’s chemical weapons: Any deal will require accepting Assad as a partner in the negotiations.

If a ceasefire is achieved at this stage, it will reflect the rapidly shifting nature of today’s geopolitical environment.

Bringing a halt to the fighting will require the United States, the European Union, Russia, Iran, and possibly Saudi Arabia and Qatar to work together towards a common goal.

In order to achieve results in the future, international coalitions will have to be broader, more inclusive, and more representative of the interests of all.

Today, a variety of strategic “poles” is available, each with the capacity to attract and influence. In this multipolar context, unilateral action will increasingly fail to achieve its objectives.

If the negotiations so far had recognised this and been conducted with more tenacity, the conflict in Syria could have been resolved long ago, averting much death and destruction.

For Europe, Syria’s meltdown should serve as a wake-up call. The difficulties presented there are not confined to the chronically unstable Middle East, and Europe must confront the situation immediately.

But the European pole’s power of attraction is waning. Even as the EU continues to struggle with economic malaise, it finds itself in the midst of a growing geopolitical maelstrom, with crises in Ukraine, Russia, North Africa and the Middle East each presenting important challenges.

The EU needs to acknowledge that it is no longer the centre around which its neighbours revolve. As Stefan Lehne, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, recently put it, Europe is undergoing a Copernican revolution.

The reality of a multipolar world is that other players can attract and influence. For example, China is working to restore the last stretch of the old Silk Road to reach the ports of the Mediterranean. That stretch passes through the Balkans.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has asked the new commissioner for regional policy, Johannes Hahn, to make recommendations aimed at redefining the European Neighbourhood Policy, the framework through which the EU relates to its immediate geopolitical environment.

The policy needs a complete overhaul. It no longer makes sense to apply a single standard. The EU’s offer is no longer unique, and faces competition from other frameworks for integration, other actors, and myriad strategic opportunities.

In this context, it may be equally important to consider the neighbours of Europe’s neighbours.

The European Neighbourhood Policy must be made more flexible. Conditionality has plainly failed to deliver the intended results, because, ultimately, its success depends on countries’ willingness to accept the European agenda. Countries that are considered strategically important will require more attention and more commitment.

International politics is witnessing exceptional and far-reaching change.

Unless multipolarity is met with an efficient multilateral approach, problems like Syria’s civil war will become much more frequent — and more difficult to resolve. Syria, and its largest city, is the perfect place to start seeking a better way.


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, 2014.

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