February 25, 2016
Geneva peace talks have therefore been suspended due to the intransigence and interference of the regional supports. Saudi Arabia has remained intransigent regarding the composition of the opposition group whereas Damascus and its allies refused to consider the High National Committee (HNC), created under the aegis of Riyadh, as the accepted opposition delegation. Damascus has continuously tried to embed its own “opposition” in the negotiations.
Nevertheless, the EU can turn this conference into a success and must do it in order to tackle the terrorist threat and the refugee crisis at their roots. Indeed, given that the main reason behind the blockage stems from the desire of some Heads of State to shore up their own power and tackle any internal instability, the EU must make the finding of a political agreement in Syria necessary to ensure the internal stability in these states. The EU thus has a role to play in the International Syria Support Group meetings, but will have to demonstrate courage and solidarity.
Firstly, the EU should act on Russia, which is paradoxically the actor over which the EU has most leverage. The declining prices of oil and gas have put Moscow in such a bad economic situation that the Security Council of the Russian Federation considers the current national budgetary imbalance as a main strategic threat, since the budget had in fact been set up on the basis of a $50 oil barrel, while the current price varies around $30.The social consequences of such an economic crisis are that significant that they threaten the tacit agreement between Putin and his population: less freedom for more prosperity. Symbolically, the number of Russians who live below the poverty line has increased by nearly 2% between 2014 and 2015.
The EU should on the one hand re-establish political contacts with Russia through the G8 and the EU-Russia Summit, but on the other hand retain its economic pressure until satisfactory progress is made.
The situation is therefore conducive to putting pressure on Moscow in order to make the required headway on the Syrian crisis: Russia must stop encouraging Damascus to favour military tools and end its indiscriminate bombing on the Syrian people, a prerequisite that the opposition has put on the table in order to start negotiations. For this purpose, the EU should on the one hand re-establish political contacts with Russia through is reintegration in the G8 and the restoration of the EU-Russia Summit, but on the other hand retain its economic pressure until satisfactory progress is made. In fact, the international sanctions have already cost Russia $25 Billions in 2015 according to Moscow. The combination of both measures should convince Moscow to gradually phase out an engagement that is weighing heavily on its finances.
Secondly, the E.U should take advantage of the Iranian economic weakness. Indeed, the Ayatollah Khamenei is seeking to reinvigorate the economy in order to shore up domestic social peace after 10 years of international sanctions. Teheran thus needs foreign direct investment (FDI) to spur its growth, which only EU companies can bring at this point due to the ongoing implementation of U.S. sanctions.
The EU policy-makers should thus use this need to push the Ayatollah towards a more positive attitude to the Syrian issue and can for this purpose count on the diplomatic finesse of its president. Indeed, no one more than Rouhani requires the aforementioned foreign investments in the perspective of the next Parliamentary elections on 26 February. The task is not easy but feasible, particularly if Moscow has been convinced to leave Iran be the sole defender of Bashar al-Assad.
Therefore, without international backup, Damascus will no longer be able to favour the military option and will have to adopt a more conciliatory approach, particularly regarding the HNC composition. Indeed, Damascus has so far refused to recognize two Islamist groups (Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar Al-Sham) although their military importance makes them essential to obtain the ceasefire required for the implementation of the Interim Government and the organization of further democratic elections.
However, considering the zero-sum game logic animating any actions in the peninsula, the EU should prevent a solution, which would favour Riyadh instead of Teheran. The E.U must therefore prevent Saudi interference from weighting too strongly on negotiation. Riyadh has in fact been accused by the UN special envoy for Syria of undermining efforts to find a diplomatic solution in Syria by trying to tightly control the composition of the opposition group. Otherwise, it would leave the door open to further regional instabilities.
The EU could use the EU-GCC ministerial meetings to give Riyadh the required security reassurances. Furthermore, as their first commercial partner, the EU does not lack ways to put pressure on the monarchy.
To this end, the Union could use the EU-GCC (Gulf Cooperation Countries) ministerial meetings to give Riyadh the required security reassurances. Furthermore, as their first commercial partner, the EU does not lack ways to put pressure on the monarchy. Riyadh has ensured its social peace with its oil income through widescale cronyism, but is currently facing important economic hardships, which threaten its welfare state policy (e.g. at the end of 2015, the government has raised the price of retail gasoline by 50% in response to its $98 billion deficit).
In conclusion, Europe has the required means and hence the responsibility to launch a new dynamic in the political negotiations on Syria; not only to terminate a conflict, which has already killed hundreds of thousands people but also to ensure its unity and security. The refugee crisis and jihadist terrorism, mostly provoked by the Syrian chaos, represent in fact the most significant threats to the European security and unity, as recently shown by the Paris attacks or the launch of a special procedure by the EU Commission in order to prolong internal border. Notwithstanding, to play this role, the E.U will require a high degree of understanding of the regional dynamics and must favour a long-term political vision rather than short-term economic interests.
Matthieu CrévecoeurAuthor : EUROPEUM