Why does Russia See a Potential European Role in Syria?

08.11.2018 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

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More than merely seeking a European role in Syria’s post-war reconstruction, a European diplomatic presence in Syria’s post-war settlement through Sochi peace process would render it a lot more credibility and international acceptance. There is a geo-political dimension to it as well. With the EU and the US falling clearly apart on the question of Iran nuclear deal, the EU seems quite determined in pursuing its policies vis-à-vis other contentious issues rather independently. While it can’t be said for sure that the EU will automatically tune itself with Russian approach to Syria settlement, it can certainly be said, given how it has adopted an independent course vis-à-vis Iran, that it will not simply be following the US in its footsteps. This was pretty much the case when Turkey recently hosted Russia, along with Germany and France, to discuss the Syrian settlement.

Bringing Europe in the process makes sense to Russia also because there is little to no prospect of any deal or settlement with the US, given that the US has already announced to keep its troops in Syria until Iran withdraws its own personnel. Therefore, by bringing EU in the Syrian scenario, Russia and Turkey hope to gather enough international forces on their side to build pressure on the US to withdraw.

Just as in the case of Iran, where EU stands to gain in terms of buying cheap Iranian oil and exploiting its big market to its advantage, Syria, too, offers something that, in the absence of settlement and continuation of war, might bite Europe hard. It is undoubtedly the refugee crisis and the way the admission of half a million Syrian refugees, the biggest admission since the end of the Second Word War, has given rise to far-right movements in EU, challenging the EU elite’s hold on power. The EU, therefore, is certainly ripe enough to be brought into the Syrian peace process, and that, too, without a US involvement and influence.

The Turkey summit saw some meaningful progress on the issue. Previously, both Germany and France were reluctant to attend the summit because they were unwilling to see Assad remaining in power and providing him the money to re-build. However, the realisation that a completely destroyed Syrian economy and infrastructure would continue to send more and more refugees to Europe seems to have started to prevail, and EU leaders have seemingly become a lot more open to the possibility of Assad remaining in power as part of settlement and power-sharing arrangement under the new constitution than was previously the case.

While this settlement will then be followed by free and fair elections, what is significant to note is how, for instance, Germany has started to agree with Russia that without Assad, Syria will once again fall apart. Assad, therefore, is the pillar on which settlement will be built and expand from. France, too, is agreeing to it, and it couldn’t have attended the Turkey summit unless it had received an ‘assurance’ that there will ultimately be a political transition in Syria through fair and free elections.

But the summit, which had been originally conceived by Russia, did happen in the last week of October, and the most important outcome wasn’t just EU emphasis on political transition in Syria, but its implicit acceptance of the idea that initial settlement is possible with Assad remaining in power and that it was still possible to see him returning to power through a fair and free elections in Syria. That means, EU would practically have no problem in developing relations with Syria if Assad is re-elected in the post-settlement scenario. Hence, their agreement to establishing a constitutional committee, as the communique of Istanbul summit read, “by the end of the year …that would achieve the constitutional reform, paving the way for free and fair elections under the UN supervision …, with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to participate”.

What this consensus on making reforms and holding elections qualitatively means is that EU no longer sees ‘regime change’ as important an objective as ‘political change.’ Thus, the political change thus achieved through elections and under the US supervision would also open up the way for the EU to release money for Syria’s reconstruction.

As EU foreign minister, Federica Mogherini, has often reiterated that they will not release “reconstruction” money to Syria until the political process has been completed under UN auspices. Therefore, with things now seemingly reaching a point in Syria where fulfilling this condition does no longer seem an impossibility as it looked until a year or so ago, there would remain little for EU to block, unless it reverses its stance) funding Syrian re-construction.

For Russia, therefore, the inclusion of EU in Syrian peace process offers two fold benefits: it gives credibility to the overall peace process and opens up the possibility of reaching an internationally recognised ‘political change’ in Syria, and it does also make Syria’s massive reconstruction problem a lot less problematic than it is now due to the absence of sufficient funds for it. EU’s both diplomatic and financial presence would thus make a crucial difference in terms of taking the Syrian war to a logical and peaceful end, and that’s what seems to have motivated the Russians to pro-actively engage EU, instead of the US, in Syria.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.