While Europe is transfixed by the UK referendum, the crisis that has arguably done the most damage to the continent continues unabated: the war in Syria. Right on Europe’s doorstep, Syria still burns. It is high time to acknowledge that the peace efforts of the US and Russia have failed dismally. Whether there is any chance of this changing after a new US president takes office in early 2017 is anyone’s guess. But that’s precisely the question Europeans need to start preparing for. And the time to do so is now.
If anyone thought Syria had gone away, look again. Massive air strikes carried out by Russia and Syrian government forces, some using barrel bombs, have picked up again over the besieged city of Aleppo. More hospitals have been destroyed and children killed: there are pictures of this online but they’re not receiving much attention. Let’s face it: we have slowly become numb to the suffering of Syrians.
But we ignore Syria at our peril. Future Arab and Muslim generations, if not today’s, will ask Europeans why they did not do more to help a nation butchered by a dictator’s army and his allies. Europe’s destiny is intertwined with events in its Arab neighbourhood in a way that the US’s is not. For each Syrian refugee who made it to Europe and was treated decently, how many who were rejected or stuck in the war zone will nurture resentment towards those in the West who preferred to erect barbed wire fences or wring their hands?
Preoccupied with terrorism and refugee quotas, we worry about the spillover effects but have stopped thinking about root causes. These causes are not in Raqqa, the capital of Daesh’s (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) self-styled “caliphate”. They are in the presidential palace in Damascus.
Most people in Europe now view Syria as essentially an anti-terrorism problem. Their governments encourage this because sending warplanes is simpler than addressing the reality of a complex catastrophe — the worst humanitarian disaster of our times. The fight against Daesh has recently progressed. In Syria and Iraq, the group has, to a degree, been put on the defensive, and western-supported Kurdish and Arab forces seem set to retake more pockets of territory. It’s only part of the picture, but it’s the one western politicians prefer to highlight.
The other part of the picture is what created the bulk of the refugee movements to Europe from Syria in 2015: the civil war, which started in 2011 when president Bashar Al Assad ordered his security forces to open fire on peaceful demonstrators who were calling for a democratic revolution as in Tunisia. Al Assad, who has been helped all along by Russia and Iran, then released Islamist militants from his prisons and made sure the world started to see Syria in binary terms: him against extremists.
Radicalisation has grown in the ranks of Syria’s armed opposition. But that doesn’t mean the Syrian opposition should be dismissed. If it was no more than a bunch of radicals, there would never have been talks involving a UN-recognised, anti-Al Assad, Syrian “ high negotiations committee”. Those talks went ahead, and Russia committed to them even after it launched its military intervention in September 2015. The talks were supposed to halt the civil war. They haven’t.
It wasn’t meant to be this way. Remember how, last December, the UN security council unanimously voted for a resolution designed to end the civil war and provide Syria with a new government? The accord was hailed as a major step towards peace. “This council is sending a clear message to all concerned,” said John Kerry, “that the time is now to stop the killing in Syria”. A 17-nation International Syria Support Group was officially tasked with a process leading to political change in Syria. It called for “credible, inclusive and nonsectarian governance” within six months, and “free and fair elections, pursuant to a new constitution” within 18 months.
Now all the UN seems able to do is wait for the Al Assad regime to give clearance for aid deliveries to the very cities and areas that its forces besiege. Earlier this month, in another humiliation of the UN, the Al Assad regime made sure only anti-lice shampoo, mosquito nets and vaccines were allowed into the town of Darayya, under siege since 2012. This week some food did finally arrive — which made headlines as if it were a major breakthrough. Yet 600,000 Syrians are still besieged.
Much has been said about the supposedly waning power of the US. And it is hard to disagree that a solution in Syria can be found only if there is a degree of cooperation from Russia. Despite its announcement in March that it was pulling out, Russia has entrenched itself in the conflict, capitalising on the certainty that the Obama administration wanted as little involvement as possible.
By deploying planes and air-defence systems, Russia has created a no-fly zone suited to its own interests and those of the Al Assad regime it protects — not for the protection of civilians. Surely, after months of diplomatic stalemate, it is obvious that the only thing Russia has provided in Syria is more attacks on civilian populations — as in Aleppo, where its air strikes have been concentrated in recent weeks, not in the Daesh strongholds in the east.
Europe’s power is, of course, dwarfed by US might. But it isn’t nonexistent, if it could only get its act together. Europe has more at stake in Syria than the US does because of the ways its domestic politics and security have been directly affected by the war. Getting to grips with this reality must be a priority for Europeans before it’s too late. Russia is Europe’s neighbour, and Europe should find the muscle to exert leverage on Putin. He won’t bow to smiles, but he has a difficult economic situation on his hands.
Maybe talk of new European sanctions, this time focused on Russia’s attitude in Syria? There are no easy solutions. But as long as the US and Russia are alone at the negotiating table, European interests will suffer. Not to mention those of Syrian civilians.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Natalie Nougayrede is former executive editor and managing editor of Le Monde