View from Madrid: Islamic State first

Spain’s focus on tackling Islamic State leaves it more amenable to political solution including Assad.

The discussion in Spain over Russia’s full-fledged intervention in Syria must be seen in the light of three essential factors. Firstly, the current conservative government’s stand on the Syrian crisis; secondly a predominantly realist security narrative in Madrid, which, especially in a context marked by strategic uncertainty and self-reliance, favours strong men, classic notions of international order and security alliances; and thirdly the perennial “Russian Question” and how it predictably plays out in Spain’s political establishment and ideological clashes.

Throughout the Syrian crisis, Spain has generally supported a political settlement. In this regard, and as part of the government’s attempts to give new impetus to the country’s tarnished international leverage, it led a few mediation initiatives, in order to help build a cohesive Syrian opposition (e.g. 2014 Córdoba Conference). These initiatives have built on the traditional notion of Spain as a broker or mediator with the Arab world. Madrid opposed breaking EU unity over the question of arming the Syrian opposition. At times, nonetheless, some elements in the government have seemed somewhat more hawkish on the Assad regime (Spain endorsed the US-proposed Saint Petersburg Declaration, in the margins of the G20 summit – part of the botched red lines diplomacy shortly after the sarin gas attack at Ghouta).

Yet the current emphasis is clearly tilted towards fighting the Islamic State and international jihadism in general. Madrid’s most pressing security focus lies on the spectre of jihadism near and within Spanish borders, from the Sahel to North Africa to the Middle East, gearing most security resources accordingly. Between endorsing or somehow promoting societal empowerment and transformative agendas that are perceived to end in chaos (for many in Madrid, and elsewhere in Europe too, the lesson learned from the Arab Spring), or a status quo defined by autocrats and governments perceived as stable, Madrid’s political establishment so far opts for the latter. Realist security paradigms and the weaving of alliances with states across the region, regardless of their governance and political nature, are gaining traction. Hence Madrid’s courting of Abdel Fattah  el-Sisi in Egypt, and the likes.

In this context, faced with the worrying rise of the IS in the region and a Syrian opposition in a shambles, Madrid is pushing for the acceptance of Assad as a lesser evil, suggesting he should be part of an overall “political solution” on Syria. This position puts them close to Moscow and other EU Member States. This is coupled with an emerging narrative that entangles IS with all forms of jihadism, singled out as evil and “the” enemy which must be fought “hard” (as PM Rajoy recently argued). Thus some senior officials, especially FM José Manuel García Margallo, have stuck to a non-confrontational approach with Russia over the rights or wrongs of its military campaign in Syria, insisting of international unity in the “War on Terrorism”. It should be noted that Madrid is joining a flock of European countries endorsing a mainly military response to IS-style jihadism. Spain generally does so, though, as a supportive partner through the provision of assets or regional capacity-building in broader coalitions of will (e.g. Spanish military trainers in Iraq), rather than directly taking part in bombing operations.

Now there are nuances to Madrid’s overall position on the Assad/IS dichotomy. Some senior officials, from the prime minister’s office or Defence Minister Morenés, make clear that Assad’s role in any settlement would a temporary one in any event, deploring the regime’s responsibility in the escalation of the war, the human toll and the very rise of IS. Other officials, though, adopt an even more realist tone when it comes to Assad, weighing in on European discussions concerning this dilemma and somewhat overlooking, at least in the present juncture, the roots of the crisis. Overall, the government, at a time when Spain, holding a non-permanent seat at the UNSC, is especially keen on dialling down tensions with Russia, insists on the need for unity, including with Moscow, against IS.

Lastly, the “Russian Question” plays a strong role in Madrid any time Moscow is a part of the equation, whether in Ukraine, Syria or elsewhere. Large segments of Madrid’s political establishment, whether from the conservative Popular Party or the opposition left of centre Socialist Party (let alone the leftists “Podemos”, so far toeing pro-Kremlin positions along the lines of Die Linke, Syriza and others), stick to the traditional vision of engagement with Russia and the idea of a “common European home” that includes Moscow. In some quarters, this is taken to a further level, advocating for a Madrid-Moscow strategic partnership (not just a European one), a notion reflected in Spain’s new foreign policy strategy. Hence there is indeed an active Spanish Ostpolitickers’ caucus, made up of those who want a special relationship of sorts with Moscow. FM Margallo, in what could be the final stretch of his term (he has announced his wish not to repeat as FM after Spain’s nation-wide elections in December) is investing himself fully in this narrative. However, the juggling of this vision with factors such as Russian mischief in the Eastern neighbourhood or Syria has sometimes seen him (or the country) under fire as a pro-Russian advocate in the EU, raising eyebrows with other partners.

In fairness, the idea of a Spanish strategic partnership with Moscow is questioned, given the few deliverables it has yielded and the actions of Putin’s Russia (including revelations of Kremlin’s ties with shady networks active in Spain). It proved the most controversial aspect of the discussions toward the strategy. In this regard, the Ukraine crisis revealed some splits in an otherwise firmly entrenched view. An open question is, in a new political context, with emerging forces such as “Ciudadanos” or “Podemos” disputing political space with mainstream parties, whether this realist security narrative will remain a dominant force, or whether alternative visions will gain sway.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head of ECFR Madrid Office & Policy Fellow

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