Iran Review| Afifeh Abedi: After a ceasefire deal for Syria, reached by the United States and Russia, ground to failure in the heat of the United States’ presidential election, it seems that the European Union (EU) is bent on getting more seriously involved in the Syria crisis. As a result, leaders of such European countries like France, Britain, and Germany have been leveling sharp verbal attacks against Russia using recent developments in the Syrian city of Aleppo as excuse, and have threatened Moscow with increasing sanctions on ground of what is going on in Syria. Even the October 19 meeting of the Normandy Group in Berlin, which was expected to focus on the crisis in Ukraine, practically turned into a trilateral meeting among Germany, France and Russia with the main topic being the situation in Syria. After that, the heads of the European states took part in a summit on Syria in Brussels and also discussed how to deal with Russia with regard to its actions in Syria. In fact, actions taken and statements made by the European officials clearly show that they are bent on playing a more serious part in Syria, and given Russia’s approach to Europe, it seems that this issue is going to be used as a new leverage in addition to already existing leverages in order to mount pressure on Russia in Syria.
Europe’s approach to the issue of Syria
The rising tide of immigration from the Middle East to Europe and the role played by the Syrian crisis in this regard have generally highlighted the issue of Syria for the European Union. However, in their recent positions, most emphasis has been put by the European officials on the issue of the Aleppo. Aleppo was also the main axis of a resolution drafted by France and submitted to the United Nations Security Council in early October, which was of course vetoed by Russia. In the meantime, the name of Aleppo has been the keyword frequently used by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and the French President Francois Hollande in their sharp rhetoric against Russia. Aleppo was also the main topic of discussion in the trilateral meeting among Russia, France and Germany in Berlin. One day after the meeting in Berlin and in a summit session of the EU heads of state, the issue of Aleppo was highlighted even more. Europe’s demands of Russia have been also focused on Aleppo and do not take into account the totality of the Syrian crisis. In fact, the European Union has been putting a meaningful focus on the settlement of the conflict in Aleppo. The EU’s demands from Russia include the following points, which are in line with the Security Council resolution drafted by France:
- Ending military flights over Aleppo
- Establishment of immediate ceasefire, and
- Ending the government forces’ siege on the Syrian opposition forces and paving the way for the provision of humanitarian aid to them.
If must, of course, be noted that in parallel with these developments, news services reported that the British military had restarted training and arming the Syrian opposition. It seems that this strategy can be also chosen as an option by other European countries, including Germany and France.
Up to the present time, and while taking into account all governmental and nongovernmental actors involved in the Syria crisis, Russia considered the United States as its main side in this conflict. Therefore, and based on logical grounds, there were two main reasons according to which Moscow was not willing for the European countries to get involved in this issue, and especially did not want them to take sides with the United States. The first reason was that Russia is not willing for the Syrian crisis to turn into another reason for tension in Russia’s relations with Europe on top of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. The second reason is that at the end of the day, Moscow believes that the case of Syria is an issue between Russia and the United States.
But to the same extent that the United States is willing to pit Europe against Russia in the case of Syria, Russia is willing to use Europe’s capacity for mediation between Moscow and Washington. Therefore, at a juncture when tensions have been escalating between the United States and Russia over the issue of Syria, Moscow is trying to prevent Europe’s capacity from turning into a threat. As a result, following sharp remarks made by Francois Hollande, the president of France, and subsequent cancellation of a visit to Paris by Russian President Vladimir Putin, he made a trip to Germany to take part in the Berlin meeting on Ukraine despite the fact that the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had initially refrained from taking part in that meeting. This measure by Putin was an important sign that Russia was not willing to close the door to dialogue with the European Union. This was followed by further signs of Russia’s attention to Europe’s warnings and threats. The halt on Russia’s air strikes on Aleppo from the second half of October cannot be unrelated to Europe’s warnings.
In the meantime, Russia’s permanent representative to the European Union, Vladimir Chizhov, has been emphasizing that continued dialogue is going on between Moscow and Brussels in order to shed more light on Russia’s positions with regard to Syria. As a result, he added, after Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, pays a visit to the EU on October 16, the next round of talks between the two sides will be held in Moscow in November.
The noteworthy point is that holding a trilateral meeting among Iran, Russia and Syria in Moscow in parallel to the aforesaid developments shows that while discussing a possible solution with the European side, Russia is still trying to have the trust of Syrian and Iranian sides with regard to its pioneering role in negotiations with the West over the crisis in Syria.
Developments that have taken place in the relations between Russia and the European Union over the issue of Syria can lead us to a number of conclusions:
- The higher emphasis put by the European countries on the need to resolve the Aleppo crisis must be considered as a sign of the fact that Europe is playing a complementary role to the United States in the case of Syria and perhaps their higher emphasis on the issue of Aleppo is meant to prevent full control of the Syrian army over this city.
- General remarks and statements made by Russians show that they have opened the door to dialogue with the European side on Syria and this is another evidence attesting to the conclusion that Russians are, in fact, trying to find a political solution for the settlement of the Syria crisis.
- Europe, however, has turned into a new pressure tool against Russia in the case of Syria and this issue can further make conditions more difficult for Moscow. However, just in the same way that pressures exerted by the United States caused Russians to finally get closer to the Syrian government, exerting more pressure by Europe on Russia will lead to no different result and can only increase Moscow’s capacity to accept more risks.