All quiet on the European front

A political solution for Syria calls for EU-Russia dialogue, to ignore that would be a mistake

A street in the town of Ariha, Idlib province, after airstrikes, 30 January.

One of the major challenges facing the European Union is for the bloc to be respected as a factor in solving global crises. In other words, to qualify for the group of the two widely acknowledged great powers, which in recent years have been joined quite convincingly by China as well.

So far this ambition of the EU is reduced to making diplomatic declarations, and one of the proofs for that is Europe's conduct in the Iranian nuclear deal after the US withdrawal from it. But the recent developments in the Syrian crisis offer a new opportunity for the EU to affirm its presence on the global arena. And it depends solely on the bloc if it will step up into this role. In fact, it would be quite late, but the moment is now.

The war in Syria is being waged for nine years now. The bloody fighting has left 6.6 million displaced internally and 5.6 million around the world, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. These numbers are not final. Another disconcerting figure shows the magnitude of destruction in the country. The UN calculates that €400bn will be needed for the reconstruction of post-war Syria.

The truth is that - for over a decade - civilians have been victims of air raids, tanks have destroyed their cities and banned chemical weapons have been used in the country. But everything was calm on the European front. The peace was only disturbed when Syrian and other refugees, fleeing the failed Arab Spring, were reaching European borders. After the onslaught in 2015, the EU grew alarmed, nearly panicked, and made an agreement with Turkey, according to which Turkey had to host refugees for five years at the cost of around €6bn. That was a rather shameful business deal which in no way was a solution to the Syrian crisis, nor was it any kind of a peace treaty. It was just a repose which the EU ensured for itself, being well aware that it will have only a temporary effect and sooner or later the bloc will have to renegotiate a new bargain. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan requested just that, several days ago.

Alexandra Stiglmayer, General Secretary of the European Stability Initiative, last week said something significant - that paying Turkey to hold migrants cost Europe about €31 per refugee per month. This is cheap for Europe, she said, as a refugee in Germany, Belgium or in France costs at least €1,500 per month - for healthcare, food, accommodation, social systems. In other words, the deal is very advantageous for the EU but is apparently not good for Turkey, which already prior to the recent events in the Syrian province of Idlib had to sustain about 3.6 million refugees, who now number a good deal more. The EU did nothing when Russia and then Turkey joined in the Syrian war in 2015. Brussels made excuses for its passive attitude, quoting its souring relations with those two major countries, owing to Russia's annexation of Crimea, and blatant violation of human rights in Turkey. Meanwhile, the arguably strange idea of creating a common EU army has been gaining support.

At the informal meeting of the EU foreign ministers in Zagreb on 5 March, a reasonable proposal was finally voiced - despite the accumulated problems with Russia and the frozen official dialogue, the EU should seek cooperation with Moscow in such fields as energy, environment, and resolution of international conflicts like those in Libya and Syria. The question is how the EU will implement this policy in practice. Because no matter how embittered the relations between Brussels and Ankara, such are nevertheless maintained. First, Erdogan received European Council President Charles Michel in his office, and then he himself visited the EU headquarters to deliver his message, albeit in the form of an ultimatum, to the European leaders. However, the EU has held no negotiations with Vladimir Putin. With a view to Ukraine and the Minsk agreement, only French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel keep in touch with the Russian President, and last month the two of them called from Brussels to discuss a proposal for a meeting on the Syrian crisis. Putin's response was not made public, but no meeting on the issue has been scheduled so far. In fact, not all of the Member States are willing to hold talks with Putin, but it is apparent that without Moscow the Syrian crisis cannot be resolved. And the reason is not that Russia can veto any UN resolution, but rather the fact that this country will not let Syrian President Bashar al-Assad share the Arab Spring fates of other leaders.

Erdogan left Brussels visibly angry and turned his back on the journalists. His press office only described the negotiations as “constructive”. Ursula von der Leyen also did not provide much information, apart from the fact that the agreement on refugees remains valid and in the near future there will be new high-level negotiations. In other words, nothing new on the European front.

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