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The EU shifting its strategy on Syria, Iraq and fighting ISIS

After the United States abandoned the idea of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stepping down and enhanced security coordination with the Syrian army against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), it appears the Europeans began some time ago a series of meetings to change their policy on Syria. According to information obtained by Al-Akhbar, some senior European officials did not hesitate to say at the last Council of European Union Foreign Ministers meeting that "this policy was wrong." It is necessary, therefore, to change it and let the United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura's initiative lead the way. Does that mean we will soon see favorable signs towards the Syrian regime and further disregard for the external opposition?

A European official told Al-Akhbar about the proceedings of an important meeting between United Nations (UN) envoy Staffan de Mistura and European Union (EU) foreign affairs ministers on December 11, confirming that there is a change in the European position towards Syria. He said the meeting was closed like all meetings during which Europeans discuss sensitive matters. De Mistura began to explain the situation in Syria and the regional and international framework surrounding his plan that is supposed to be implemented in three months "otherwise it loses its ability to be implemented."

This, in short, is what de Mistura said and the Europeans' position towards it.

The plan to freeze the fighting in Aleppo is the only one currently available. There is no hope for another plan. Therefore, the EU should support it practically and not just verbally. It is the only plan capable of freezing the fighting, securing people's needs and returning the displaced people who are burdening neighboring areas and states. It will also allow for the eventual process of reconstruction.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who showed readiness to ensure the success of the international plan in Aleppo, convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin of the plan and played a major role in convincing his Iranian allies as well. This was necessary because Moscow was reluctant, thinking that no US-Atlantic effort can be trusted and the plan might lead to dire consequences for Russia and its allies.

Although the Americans expressed reservations and doubt about the plan at the beginning, they have become more flexible, tying their approval with that of some of their regional allies, meaning of course Saudi Arabia primarily. In any case, I am going to Riyadh to convince Saudi officials of the plan's feasibility. If we obtain preliminary approval from them, I will subsequently continue my efforts in Damascus so we can start as soon as possible because time is running out.

Theoretically, the Europeans support everything de Mistura said. They believe that since the resignation of former UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, it was necessary to maintain political efforts between the regime and the opposition. First, so the regime will not unilaterally seek to settle the war militarily under the pretext of the absence of current political efforts. Second, to give the opposition - which is becoming increasingly divided with each side leveling accusations at the other - the impression that the West continues to support it. Third, there is no room for thinking beyond de Mistura given the crisis in US-Russian relations because of Ukraine. This crisis prompts the Europeans to think that Moscow has become more adamant about its support for Assad. Therefore, there is no hope of exerting pressure on the Syrian regime except through the Iranian ally. This, too, is an important development in Brussels.

Here, we should remember that Brahimi had told the Europeans once what he said on more than one occasion and in more than one place, namely, that his resignation will "relieve two people, Assad and Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister Saud al-Faisal" because his personal relationship with both men was quite bad. He was probably speaking about "Saud al-Faisal's personal hatred towards Assad being a hindrance to finding a solution." It is also known that the Syrian president, from his very first meeting with Brahimi, questioned his intentions especially when the Algerian UN envoy suggested that Assad should step down and intended to meet Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa before Assad prevented him from doing so, arguing that this is improper on an official visit. Brahimi at the time had to make due with a phone call. After a while, Sharaa was removed from power.

Turkey remains a real problem for the Europeans. Some officials say it is impossible to predict what Ankara could do next. Others believe that Turkey is pretty much the only country still facilitating the passage of foreign fighters to Syria, it has not made up its mind about fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and is trying to blackmail the international community with its position. Here, the Europeans make two suggestions. Either put pressure on Turkey, including perhaps issuing a warning - which some believe is pointless because it might make the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan's position more intransigent and push him further into Russia and Iran's arms - or try to cajole and get closer to Turkey, prompting it to commit to the international decision to fight ISIS and stop the flow of foreign fighters. Either way, the Turkish position remains worrisome for Europe.

Iran has become a central player in both the Syrian and Iraqi crises. It is necessary to deal with this reality regardless of the reservations that some might have. There is nothing to prevent engaging with Iran in a serious dialogue about Syria, even before signing a nuclear agreement. This is useful because it could lead to political concessions from the Syrian regime and it could strengthen the presence of European companies in Iran. Perhaps this has become a European need despite French reservations, which are understandable, given French-Saudi relations and France's concern not to upset Israel.

It is impossible to think of a serious solution or temporary solutions in Syria without Saudi Arabia, which has extensive relations with a number of Anti-Assad parties. It is important to reassure Riyadh that the European efforts do not intend to buoy up the regime. De Mistura said that Saudi Arabia implicitly welcomes his initiative. The Spanish foreign affairs minister was clearer, saying that Riyadh accepts the plan and it is in France's interest to tone down its critique otherwise it will appear more extremist than Saudi Arabia, which is not an understandable position. The Spanish minister went as far as suggesting that an international conference for Syria be held in his country given that the idea might accepted by everybody.

Russia remains the main obstacle to any solution that does not satisfy the Kremlin and the Syrian regime. Since its relationship with the US and Europe is currently strained because of Ukraine, it is necessary to look for ways to separate any discussion with Russia about Syria from the position regarding Ukraine. Some European officials intend to strengthen the dialogue with Moscow because "it is unacceptable to return to the logic of the cold war." Perhaps the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini will visit Moscow soon. Besides, Russia is active and serious about finding a political solution. The Europeans keeping their distance from Moscow might mean distancing the US and Russia.

The Europeans with and against Assad

After de Mistura discussed these points with the European ministers and talked about his latest contacts and the hope that his initiative revives in the hearts of the Syrian people, contradictory but important positions emerged among the Europeans regarding the future of the relationship with Assad that can be summed up as follows.

First, everyone agrees to de Mistura's plan, but they want to support it because it is the only plan currently available while awaiting the results of Russian efforts to bring the opposition and the Syrian regime delegation together in Russia. However, France, which currently enjoys strong trade relations with Saudi Arabia and Britain, is ahead of other Europeans in its contacts with Iran and insists that the plan should not support the Syrian army against the moderate opposition in Aleppo. In other words, the issue should not be portrayed as standing with the army against ISIS because in Aleppo and its surroundings there are fighters affiliated with the moderate opposition and they should be taken into consideration and supported "so we won't appear as though we are drawing a parallel between the regime and the opposition and that we view both sides equally."

The French foreign affairs minister was the most intransigent even though some within the current French administration point out the need to take a new position towards Syria, especially after the terrorist attacks that took place on French soil. Laurent Fabius said, "We don't want what happened to Homs to happen in Aleppo," where suspending the fighting benefited the regime only and was not balanced. The fighters left after they turned in their weapons to the state and were transported in government buses to the areas they come from.

A European official with ties to the Syrian opposition said "the departure of the fighters then was a farce for them. Imagine that the Grand Mufti, Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, who is a regime loyalist showed up in the buses transporting the fighters joking with them and asking them isn't it better to marry while they are young instead of getting killed on battlefronts? They were given cell phones to talk with their families and undermine their morale. In the end, the media image and the reality on the ground were in the interest of the regime."

The French minister was insistent that "the regime should not benefit from this plan in terms of relieving it at the Aleppo front so it can focus on other fronts in other areas." That is what Fabius was saying when the EU received information about the possibility of the Syrian and Iraqi armies engaging in a wide joint military operation in Deir Ezzor.

Second, the European relationship with Assad is possible, but it becomes evident during the discussions of the foreign affairs ministers and commissioners of the EU that they are at a loss on how to deal with Syria. For example, a European official in Geneva says that a number of his European colleagues have begun to talk about the failure of the policy adopted so far and about the "uncalculated mistake" of suggesting early on that Assad step down.

Some Europeans argue that their assessment of the situation was erroneous while others believe that trusting the US from the beginning was a mistake because Washington, as usual, places its interests ahead of all its alliances, often putting the Europeans in an awkward position. Still others argue that underestimating the capabilities of the Syrian army and its allies was their biggest mistake.

As such, EU officials are currently discussing how to "modify" the political position that has been adopted for more than three years in Syria. One sign of this change is abandoning the mantra of "Assad stepping down" and finding more realistic statements that have been repeated now and then, such as "Assad is not a final solution to the crisis" or "Assad will not stay at the end of the political solution" or "it is only natural that a political solution will eventually lead to transferring powers from the presidency and not all powers" according to Geneva I. Another sign of a change in position is abandoning the phrase "proceeding with a transitional process now" and replacing it with one accepted by all, namely, "calling for the start of a transitional process."

It appears that Mogherini succeeded, to some extent, in promoting the point of view that "we agree on the end result but political realism and the developments of the situation require us to adjust our course and use new phrases." In other words, even if everyone in Europe wanted Assad to step down, political realism suggests that this is not possible at this point and encouraging a political solution might eventually lead to this end, meaning this is no longer a European priority.

The security council in Aleppo?

In light of these discussions about modifying the European position towards the Syrian regime, the most important question in the EU is how to ensure the success of the Aleppo plan and how to implement it without portraying Assad as the winner, especially that the Syrian army advanced in a noticeable way in Aleppo recently?

The dominant trend is to find a monitoring mechanism by the UN Security Council. However, the Europeans realize that this is impossible due to the dual Sino-Russian veto that is always ready to protect Syria. Therefore, unlike the French and British positions which insist on an international force from the UNSC, the EU is more inclined towards finding a diplomatic formula that talks about "a monitoring mechanism linked to the UNSC."

All of this will be released soon in what is now called "the EU strategy on Syria, Iraq and fighting ISIS."

Despair with the Syrian opposition, particularly, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, which for a long time monopolized, with international support, the representation of the opposition has infiltrated EU states after the US. The Europeans too are now more inclined towards expanding the scope of the opposition to include forces that were previously not accepted and undermine the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is remarkable for instance that when the head of the Coalition, Hadi al-Bahra, visited the EU in Brussels few days ago, representatives from the Coalition were calling the Europeans to say that Bahra no longer represents them. A European official says jokingly: "Everytime we begin to talk with an official from the Coalition, we discover that this Coalition held new elections and changed the official. So we start all over again. And every time we meet with a Coalition official, he repeats the same question, how are you going to prevent the regime from benefiting from the plan you are proposing? But we have noticed for some time now that some parties within the Coalition have come to accept the idea of negotiating with the regime and reaching a political agreement with it even if their ultimate goal is for Assad to step down. This is the case with Moaz al-Khatib and his team for instance. The problem of the Coalition is that it does not know the meaning of political realism and continues in its fragmentation as it is tossed around by conflicting foreign alliances."

In light of all the above, is the EU starting to change its position towards Assad? Perhaps all its members still support the departure of the Syrian president. But political realism requires a change in behavior and approach and not insisting on Assad's departure as a priority. This will become more evident in the future as terrorist attacks inside Europe have increased. The only solution left is to cooperate with Syrian security forces, the Syrian army and Iran in the context of fighting terrorism.

As for de Mistur'as plan in Aleppo, it is currently in a feverish race between a military solution and security arrangements that cannot be undertaken without the regime's approval and that might be to its advantage.

Once again, history repeats the same old maxim, "international interests are more important than principles and people's tragedies."

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition

[Source: By Sami Kleib, Al Akhbar English, Beirut, 27Dec14]

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