Containment of Syria failed, Europe is paying the price

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Russia's military intervention in Syria has forced thousands more refugees to flee the country. [Freedom House/Flickr]

Russia is guaranteeing its strengthening in Syria while the West dithers. It is time for Europe to be both realistic and bold, writes Bassma Kodmani.

Bassma Kodmani is a Syrian academic and senior opposition figure. She is the executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative, a network of independent Arab research and policy institutes working to promote democracy in the Arab world.

Putin has decided that Syria is part of Russia’s near abroad. He has predicted the fecklessness of Western powers well. Whether he is deploying his arsenal in Syria to fight Daesh, or to bolster Assad, by moving a massive military presence into Syria, he has put himself in a position to call the shots. Putin does not have a strategy to end the conflict, but he has one that he thinks will guarantee Russia’s influence in Syria whilst the West continues to dither.

Europeans have been waiting for US leadership on Syria for the last four years. Some were ready to move against Assad after he used chemical weapons against civilians. The French were most committed to Obama’s red line, but Kerry and Lavrov found a way out with the agreement on Assad’s chemical arsenal; welcomed by all as a relief. That Assad remained and continued his indiscriminate aerial bombardments was deemed regrettable, but Europeans thought they could live with the problem. But this inaction has had consequences which are now being felt acutely across Europe.

The debate in Europe has since revolved around the “good reasons” for keeping Assad in place and containing the conflict. A growing number of Jihadis joining Daesh seemed manageable with extra security measures at home and airstrikes on Iraqi and Syrian territory. Containment was still favourable with the public. But the conditions for Syria’s neighbours were already unsustainable.  The 4.5 million refugees, announced by the UNHCR, were in fact closer to 7 million, and aid was dwindling. 

The refugees lost hope and began to flee to Europe. About a quarter of them fled the areas controlled by ISIS, while some 70% are seeking refuge from Assad’s aerial bombardments. The failure of containment is now felt across Europe. They are asked to find emergency housing for the refugees and attend to their vital needs. Governments are under pressure from far right groups who have found the ideal issue on which to wage their campaign and strengthen their popularity. There is no reason to believe that this will stop, and Russia’s escalation has created thousands more refugees, many of whom will inevitably head to Europe.

Obama has unequivocally made a historic mistake by underestimating the Syrian conflict. The United States continues to favour withdrawal and view Russian domination as less damaging for its own interests. Obama’s presidency will be tainted with the Syrian tragedy, but the United States does not have to deal with masses of refugees at its borders. And the growing security risk from radicalised Westerners seems more remote from the US than it does from Europe.

Europeans must recognise that their interests are not the same as those of the US. The refugee crisis is clear proof that the security of Europe is inseparable from that of the Middle East, and that European leaders can’t afford to turn their back on this conflict. Syria is no less than the Balkans – a European vital interest. Public statements will not be enough. Europe needs a distinct European proposition that is both realistic and bold.

First, Europe must clearly point to Assad’s overwhelming responsibility for the refugee crisis and make clear that he has no place in a transition. In the midst of a fierce military campaign by Russian, Iranian and Assad forces, language that suggests compromise without the prospect of reciprocation will only weaken the position of the Western governments. It will only further strengthen the regime’s intransigence and the entrenchment of its constituency, increase the despair of the moderate armed groups and the millions of ordinary Syrians who want to see an end to the fighting. Western weakness will prolong the conflict.

More than at any time in the last four and a half years, civilian protection is urgently needed. EU foreign ministers last week unanimously called for the protection of civilians as a priority action to ending the Syria conflict. Protecting Syrians from the regime’s indiscriminate aerial bombs is the only significant game changer that will make a political solution possible. Military experts agree that a no-bombing zone could be imposed from ships in the sea, and does not require a wide-ranging air campaign to destroy the regime’s air defence systems. A no-bombing zone is the vital first step to addressing both the root causes and consequences of the crisis. It will save lives, slow the refugee exodus, allow moderate civilian structures to take root, and break the cycle of radicalisation.

Russia’s intervention, far from making the no-bombing zone option obsolete, gives it added strategic value. In discussing Syria with Putin, Europe and the Unites States need to make clear that the Syrian regime will pay a military price for Russia’s direct support until Russia and the regime engage in serious negotiations. A no-bombing zone might open new opportunities for military and security arrangements on the ground that would precede political negotiations. The Syrian opposition, both political and military is highly aware of the increasing danger that Daesh represents. If Western powers commit seriously to protecting civilians and an end game without Assad, the moderate armed opposition could be persuaded to agree to a freeze on the battle lines with the regime forces in order to focus on Daesh, while the loyalist army does the same in areas under its control. A de facto burden sharing would create the necessary ground force to fight Daesh. Moderate opposition forces know the only way to create an indigenous force to stabilise the country is to bring the Free Syrian Army and the “loyalist” (national) army to work in the same direction.

Syria has become the cancer eating away at Europe’s credibility. The solution to the conflict is undoubtedly complex. It cannot be a hasty decision to go to war for regime change as was done in Libya. But continuing to depict a Manichean dilemma between rushing into a war without a stabilisation plan, and ignoring the root causes of this conflict is difficult to comprehend.

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