What the EU is actually doing about Syria, the refugees & ISIS

Posted on 27. November 2015

by Doris Manu

doris-manuWith the refugee crisis being the major preoccupation and challenge in Europe this year, it is no wonder that a great part of the 2015 Berlin Foreign Policy Forum (BFPF) was dedicated to discussions about the future of the Middle East, Syria in particular, and about the refugees themselves.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German Foreign Minister, addressed these issues in his speech at BFPF. Talking about the diplomatic negotiations exploring a peaceful solution to the Syrian war, FM Steinmeier said that ‘’We need to be as ambitious as we can for Vienna talks on Syria to succeed’’, signalling that Germany and its EU partners went beyond looking for short-term solutions to the refugee crisis and are now focused on addressing its roots. This is without a doubt a very good approach, especially now that refugees are faced with the European winter. The German commitment in this endeavour is extremely positive and leaves me hopeful that a solution will be found to end the war and stop the refugee flow.

The Vienna talks started several years after the war in Syria began, following the uprising against Assad at the time of the Arab Spring. As put by Ayman Hsafadi, former Deputy Prime Minister of Jordan at BFPF, ‘’Europe woke up to the Syrian crisis when it started knocking on its door’’. Meanwhile, thousands of Syrians were killed, millions became internally displaced or sought refuge in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and more recently, thousands of those poured into Europe. At the same time, the Islamic State rose as one of the groups fighting the army of Assad in Syria, but also killing and persecuting religious minorities, destroying cultural heritage and executing foreign journalists. Rebel groups that are fighting Assad on the ground are fragmented and it is not clear what unites and divides them. The US formed a coalition and has been bombing the IS positions in Syria and Iraq. More recently, Russia started a bombing campaign against ISIS, but it is accused of bombing non-ISIS rebels as well and thus helping the regime forces in the fight. The EU seemed to have been side-lined, but it is in fact one of the most important actors in the Vienna talks.

Steinmeier said that the first priority of the Syria talks is to get a shared view of who is an ally or enemy among the fighters on the ground. In my opinion, a more important question to answer is who will lead post-war Syria. Experts of the region who have been closely following the war shared their expertise in Berlin and noted that clarifying this part will be very complicated. The partition of Syria, with Assad only being present in the first phase of the transition, has been suggested for consideration.

Three days after the Berlin Foreign Policy Forum, the Islamic State carried out its first terrorist attacks in Europe. Several coordinated actions in Paris involving shootings and suicide bombings killed 130 people and wounded hundreds. While the discussion about the consequences of the Paris attacks on the security policy, the refugee policy and other matters is still ongoing, the countries participating in the Vienna talks met the day after the attacks to push for an agreement on the Syria solution. According to Steinmeier, during this last meeting it has been decided that the fragmentation of Syria is not acceptable. Instead, a timetable was adopted. The diplomats agreed to work on getting a ceasefire between the government forces and the armed forces of the opposition by December, a transitional government 6 months from now, a new constitution for Syria, and elections 18 months from now. It is a very good news that a common position on these matters could be reached by so many countries with different interests. The implementation will probably be a serious challenge. However, it is worth the effort in the light of multiplied problems, such as the acts of terrorism perpetrated by the Islamic State. Steinmeier noted that the ceasefire would be a crucial step to reduce the number of fronts in Syria and would allow the opposition forces to focus exclusively on fighting the IS, a fight in which they would have logistical support from the EU.

While waiting for peace in Syria, what to do about the refugees?

It seems that in the near future Turkey and the Western Balkan countries are expected to do more with support from EU member states. ‘’We are undertaking every effort as Germany to help the Western Balkans deal with the crisis’’, said FM Steinmeier in Berlin.

This did not reassure Vuk Jeremic, former Foreign Minister of Serbia, who commented that no matter how well transit countries manage the refugee influx, it will only get worse if root causes are not tackled. Jeremic said that ‘’the refugee crisis might get worse before it gets much worse or better’’ and noted that although most people who seek refuge in Europe come from Syria, other conflict areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan also generate numerous refugees.

It is time to add these cases on the agenda of diplomatic talks, too. In another post, I argued that the end to the wave of Middle Eastern refugees will only come once there is peace and stability in that region. It seems that the international community is addressing the refugee crisis with this consideration in mind and with determination. However, the challenge of ending the bloodshed in Syria is magnified by ISIS, which has also become the biggest threat for the security of European citizens. While a peace deal between the opposition and government forces that will reduce the efforts of the Syrian opposition groups to fighting ISIS is a very good move, the diplomatic efforts should now also focus on talks with the states that support and fund the Islamic State, directly or indirectly.

The EU has to bring together more players to the table, to unite everyone against war and terrorism at the same time. No state or organisation can operate if a there is a truly global coalition against it.