As Russia and the United States seek consensus over guiding principles for Syria and the Iran nuclear deal, the power constellation around the Middle East conundrum is shifting. There could be momentum for a return of the 2012 Geneva consensus among the permanent members of the UN Security Council on a power transition in Syria, except that today a new actor is disturbing the equation – the Islamic State.
European interests are tied to the fate of Syria in several ways. As the country moves up on the agenda of external powers, EU foreign policy actors need to sort out their stakes and options. This is particularly relevant for Germany, the only member state among the EU’s “big three” that is not militarily engaged in the region. The challenge of Syria could become an opportunity for Germany to define its position in the terms of a well-understood European interest.
Seen through the eyes of Berlin, Europe faces several policy dilemmas, the first of which has to do with the immediate externalities of the war in Syria, which has turned millions into refugees. For these displaced people, the situation in and outside of the refugee camps has deteriorated as time has passed, and there is still no end to the fighting in sight. The people in these camps have no opportunities to work or to legally take up residence in neighbouring countries, and this fuels the trek of refugees to Europe. Under current conditions, the crisis will only grow worse.
The EU’s highly controversial policy response on refugee relocation would likely collapse in an instant if Germany decided to change its position on accepting such large numbers. The backlog of refugees would overburden Austria in a matter of days, and then derail existing policies in the Balkans. The pressure on other member states to step in for Germany would deepen the policy divisions that have been all too evident in the past months. Europeans must therefore seek to stem the flow of refugees at the source, by providing sustainable solutions in the countries and neighbourhoods experiencing war and state failure.
One way of doing this is to resolve the issue of underfunded UN and international aid programmes by ensuring that additional financial commitments are made by member states. This could bring the basic services provided in refugee camps back to previous levels, but not the loss of perspective and opportunity felt by their inhabitants. Europe cannot make up for its failure to have engaged in humanitarian aid substantially and visibly. Another option is for member states to work more closely with countries hosting the bulk of refugees. Again, Europe comes very late to the table on this solution, especially regarding Lebanon and Jordan.
The chances of a negotiated solution to the situation in Syria have not improved; rather, they have substantially weakened
With Turkey, the problems run deeper. In the eyes of EU policy makers, Turkey has stepped out of the role designed for it as an applicant country, and is now demanding recognition and attention for its geopolitical, economic and demographic significance. In the eyes of the Turkish leadership, Europe has betrayed its promises and continues to deny Turkey’s principal national interests and security concerns. Mutual trust is low because Europeans perceive Erdogan’s Turkey to be moving away from liberal democracy and the rule of law, while the Justice and Development Party (AKP) leadership suspects that the EU are looking for “regime change” in Turkey. In the short term, this constellation of interests does not offer room for a common approach to the refugee issue. Indeed, on the contrary, Turkey could easily add to the EU’s problems by inspiring more of its 2 million refugees to leave the country in the direction of the EU. Over the longer term, a rapprochement would require a reset in the relations with the AKP leadership, a joint strategic review including discussions on membership, and Europe’s willingness to support Turkey in the greater geopolitical rivalry that is shaping the Middle East. Neither one of these three essentials will be easily accepted by European capitals.
The second dilemma arises from the need to end the conflict in Syria. Three bloody years after the Geneva accord of the P5, which laid out a transition plan towards a “unity government” for Syria, the standing of both the Assad regime and the original concert of opposition groups have substantially weakened. More importantly, the Islamic State has altered the situation. IS and radical Islamist groups now form a third pillar in the power struggle between the Assad regime and the opposition, and are antagonistic to all other players including P5 powers. The chances of a negotiated solution to the situation in Syria have not improved; rather, they have substantially weakened. As was obvious in Geneva 2012, no negotiated path to settle the conflict will be taken without the pressure and participation of external powers. This leads to the difficult choice of either accepting IS at the table or eliminating the group from the power struggle. Most internal and external actors rule out the former, so the real question is how to achieve the latter.
European countries are involved in the international coalition against the Islamic State lead by the United States in Iraq, which has now gradually extended to Syria, either by participation in air strikes, by supporting training missions, or by supplying weapons and know-how as Germany does with the Peshmerga units of the Iraqi Kurds. No EU member state is considering sending ground forces to combat IS fighters, but most share the view that boots on the ground will become a necessity at some point. Assad’s army therefore becomes an indispensable asset in the fight against IS. It is being strengthened and resupplied by Russia, so Putin’s interest in keeping the Assad regime in place will have to be accommodated. However, an Alawite dominated army liberating Sunni land from Sunni extremists, possibly flanked by the Shia dominated Iraqi army in a coordinated operation, could hardly be seen as a solution. It will complicate matters if and when successful.
For Europe, there are two complex issues that must be addressed as a priority. First, key EU actors have to find a way to work with Russia. This could involve extensive coordination talks, joint actions, and even support for Russia’s role in the Middle East, while at the same time maintaining a consistent European position and policy on Ukraine and Russia’s involvement there. It doesn’t help much that the Obama administration faces the same dilemma. Nearing the end of his presidency, however, Barack Obama might be willing to move regardless. Putin would be interested in seeing a linkage established between cooperation in the Middle East and confrontation over Syria, which European leaders should carefully avoid. Secondly, the only other Sunni boots that could seriously affect the military situation belong to the Turkish army. Turkey will resist all attempts to instrumentalise its military, and it cannot be brought in while the Turkish-Kurdish rift continues. Europeans should seek to influence Turkey’s policy vis-à-vis the Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq. This would be best done in the context of a return to the peace process between Ankara and the PKK. Europe’s leverage on Ankara regarding this is very weak, because the EU has so little to offer Turkey.
A disintegration of Syria could unleash wider revisionist trends in the region
The complex issues posing a challenge to European policy don’t stop there. A disintegration of Syria could unleash wider revisionist trends in the region. Centrifugal forces weakening the statehood of Iraq have contributed to the rise of IS and also to the disintegration of Syria. The violent break-up of both would immediately impact the stability of Lebanon and Jordan. It would also affect the security outlook for Israel. Europe, and Germany in particular, have no interest in seeing the political map of the Middle East redrawn, but they have to prepare themselves to deal with such a scenario. Recent experience in the region indicates that statehood in Syria and Iraq would remain fragile even after the elimination of the Islamic State and a negotiated transition for Syria towards a power sharing arrangement.
More so than the US, Europeans show an interest in engaging Iran beyond the terms of the nuclear deal, as they sense that only the economic and social dividends of the agreement will keep up Iran’s motivation to fully comply with its terms. Iran’s strategic position is both vulnerable and exposed. The country does not have a single friend or capable ally in the region. To the contrary, the deal it has struck with external powers has deepened the suspicions of its neighbours and is driving a series of counter-balancing tactics by the Gulf States and Turkey. From an Iranian perspective, the fighting over state control in Syria and Iraq is part of a larger struggle along the religious divide between Sunni and Shia Islam to minimise or end Iranian-Shia influence in the Arab world.
Europe has not taken clear sides in this conflict unlike the United States, which is seen by Tehran as pro-Sunni because of its alliance with Saudi Arabia and the decades it has spent isolating Iran. In this struggle, the Iranian leadership perceives the US as supporting Sunni supremacy, from military strikes against Shia opposition as in Bahrain, to the full-scale engagement of Saudi and Gulf forces in Yemen. Externally, Iran finds support from China and Russia, with only Russia taking direct sides to protect wider Shia interests – notwithstanding the continued rivalry of Russia and Iran regarding the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Were Europe to engage Iran, it would need to accept the legitimacy of Iran’s security concerns and its milieu agenda for the various Shia communities. It would also be important to develop a non-tactical position on the religious conflicts and bring to the table ideas on how ethno-religious diversity could be brought to balance.
All of the above is connected to the European desire to resolve the refugee problem at its source, and doing so requires European states to make foreign policy choices that not even the largest EU member states have prepared for. Current events are now exposing the gap in Europe’s strategic positioning. Russia and the United States are moving. Europe, though directly affected by the course of events, is being moved.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.