Europe is trying to deal with the problem almost exclusively through the management of the migration/refugee flows, and has been engaged in a very complicated – and often unpleasant – discussion on burden sharing, asylum procedures, border protection, humanitarian assistance, the prosecution of traffickers and so on. All of this is extremely important and absolutely necessary, but we appear to be limiting ourselves to treating the symptoms and not the root causes of the problem. This current European approach can only work if the numbers of people crossing into the EU is brought to a much lower level. Otherwise, the hospitality of even the most tolerant European societies will very soon be tested.
"The immediate priority should be the cessation of hostilities through the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force, the creation of a provisional government of national unity and beginning the process of reconstruction and reconciliation"
Furthermore, the Schengen Agreement – one of Europe’s most tangible and widely recognisable achievements – is now faced with considerable, even existential, challenges. The limited enthusiasm of most EU member states, with the notable exceptions of Germany and Sweden, in making any meaningful commitment to a burden sharing agreement promoted by the European Commission is seriously testing the concept of a border-free Europe, the limits of European solidarity and the idea of common European policies. The additional concern about radicalised Islamists entering Europe disguised as refugees complicates the situation further at a time of rising xenophobia and islamophobia in some EU countries.
It is becoming urgent that in addition to migration management, the international community, especially the EU, focus its efforts on ending the Syrian conflict as soon as possible. This will only be possible if Russia and Iran support an international initiative. There are, of course, several important obstacles: relations between the West and Russia remain deeply confrontational as a result of the Ukraine crisis; despite the agreement between the P5+1 and Iran on Tehran’s nuclear programme, there is still a considerable lack of trust between the two sides; Europe and the US are extremely reluctant to put “boots on the ground” in Syria; other important regional players, including Turkey whose top priority is managing the Kurdish issue, have diverging agendas; ISIS is far from defeated despite military operations against it; the Syrian opposition remains highly fragmented, complicating efforts for a transitional government; and last but not least, the – certainly not unjustified – demonising of the Assad regime raises an important question about the ethics of any possible cooperation with such a regime.
The immediate priority should be the cessation of hostilities through the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force, the creation of a provisional government of national unity and beginning the process of reconstruction and reconciliation. To achieve this, a unanimous decision by the UN Security Council is required. This would need the immediate resumption of the Geneva-II negotiating process with the participation of all involved parties including, of course, Russia and Iran. Instead of Geneva, the conference could this time take place on the Greek island of Mytilini, so that world leaders could witness first-hand the results of their continuing inaction.
The aim would be the establishment of a large and heavily-equipped peacekeeping force as soon as possible, with the substantial or symbolic participation of military forces from all the P5 plus Germany. The military participation of key neighbouring countries such as Egypt, Jordan (perhaps under the aegis of the Arab League) and Turkey would be vital to alleviating any impression that a solution has been imposed by extra-regional powers. The UN forces’ mandate and rules of engagement should explicitly authorise it to use lethal force at will against enemy combatants – namely ISIS – in order to achieve its objectives within the shortest possible time.
"The additional concern about radicalised Islamists entering Europe disguised as refugees complicates the situation further at a time of rising xenophobia and islamophobia in some EU countries"
The creation and deployment of this UN force should be linked to the new provisional government, composed of the more moderate elements of the Assad regime and the opposition. Assad should be allowed to leave the country and take sanctuary in any country willing to make such an offer. The need to stop the fighting, eradicate ISIS and stabilise the country, thus saving countless human lives but also preventing the destabilisation of neighbouring countries and the whole region, should take priority over the trial of Assad and senior members of his regime for the crimes against their own people. Such a provisional government would stay in power for a minimum of two years, under the supervision of the P5 – with some role for the Arab League. If necessary, the period could be extended until such time as the conditions allow for safe elections. The extremely difficult and complex reconstruction and reconciliation process should be generously financed by the international community, ideally including Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries as well as Europe and the US. Financial assistance should also be given immediately to the neighbouring countries hosting large numbers of displaced Syrians, especially Lebanon, Jordan and also Turkey.
Because the US continues to see Asia as their main foreign policy priority, it should be up to Europe, which is being primarily affected by both the refugee crisis but also by the general instability in the eastern Mediterranean and the continuing confrontation with Russia over Ukraine, to lead the necessary diplomatic initiative that would prepare the ground for an agreement over Syria.
There are two options for reaching an understanding with Russia. First, a grand bargain; and second, seeking a success story based on common interests (or common threats). In the latter case, Syria fits perfectly, as the spread of Islamic extremism is a domestic concern for Russia. However aggressive and unconstructive Russia’s policy in Ukraine has been over the past two years, we should not lose sight of the big picture and the extremely high stakes in the case of Syria. There are no guarantees, of course, that Russia will respond to such an opening by Europe, but President Vladimir Putin has proved to be occasionally pragmatic in his cost/benefit analysis.
It is important to keep in mind that the additional arrivals to Europe, in comparison to last year’s numbers, have so far “only” been 230,000 people, and that has already been enough to almost overwhelm even the most developed European country, Germany. There are still several hundred-thousand more Syrian refugees – in addition to people from other conflict-ridden regions – waiting to come to Europe. In addition to practical short-term problems, the long-term consequences for social cohesion in several European countries may be difficult to imagine if the current refugee inflow continues unhindered.
Photo credit: Flickr/Freedom House