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Cooperation and regional issues

22 - Relations with Russia and the greater Middle East

Grade: C+
Unity 4/5
Resources 2/5
Strategy 2/5
Impact 2/5
Total 10/20
Scorecard 2015: B- (11/20)
Scorecard 2014: B- (11/20)
Scorecard 2013: B (13/20)
Scorecard 2012: B- (12/20)

Russia surprised Europe by launching air strikes in Syria, while EU hopes of forming an anti-ISIS coalition were ill-founded

Towards the end of 2015, refugee flows and ISIS-sponsored terrorism made the crisis in Syria a policy priority for European member states. Governments differed on how to interpret Russia’s air strikes in Syria, which began in early autumn. While many saw them as counter to Western policy and interests, others hoped that European countries could form a broad anti-ISIS coalition with Russia and others.

In reality, Russia’s understanding of the causes of and possible solutions to the Syria crisis is diametrically opposed to Europe’s. Russia sees Assad as a key part of the solution to the conflict; its air strikes support the regime and often target the moderate, non-ISIS opposition. ISIS has been hit more with rhetoric than with bombs, as Moscow sees a short-term interest in letting ISIS continue fighting anti-Assad opposition groups: it has been trying to eliminate the middle ground, so that the regime becomes the only alternative to ISIS.

Europe has for years been united around a policy based on wishful thinking: it has tried to persuade Moscow to force Assad out, with no results. Now, many Western leaders have taken a step closer to Russia’s position, agreeing that Assad’s departure can happen “at a later stage”. This made the Vienna peace process possible. Russia’s air strikes on Syria prompted the West to open military de-confliction talks to avoid accidents in the air. These became more important after Moscow deployed S-300 missile systems, in effect establishing a no-fly zone over the country.

Moscow may hope that its action in Syria will force the West into a rapprochement that will have beneficial implications for Ukraine. Indeed, some Western leaders have called for an easing of sanctions to gain Russia’s cooperation in Syria, but the EU’s official position is to keep these issues separate.

The Syria crisis has also given new impetus to Europe’s relations with Turkey. When Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet, Europe worked to limit the damage and de-escalate the situation, while offering the necessary rhetorical support to its NATO ally.