Gulf Middle East

Syria, can we still believe in diplomacy?

(BRUSSELS2) I participated, this Tuesday, in the debate show of Morning First “#Connexions” (hosted by Pascal Claude) with Gilles Kepel, an expert on the Arab world around an excellent theme: “Syria, can we still believe in diplomacy?”. The show was short, too short to say everything (this is the law of the genre). So here are some…additional thoughts.

On Syria, Europe is playing a bit in the folding seats. We have to recognize it. The European Union is generally not comfortable with such “hard” conflicts. And has few means of reacting and little control over a terrain where the protagonists – Iran, on one side; Qatar and Saudi Arabia want to fight it out, through combatants, against the backdrop of the Shiism/Sunnism divide. In this “proxy” war, all in all quite classic of the Cold War, we find an equally “classic” dialogue between “Big Ones”, between the United States and Russia. But Europeans – like others – have made some “errors” of appreciation or judgment.

Syria is not Tunisia

The first, very common, error was undoubtedly to believe in the euphoria of the “Arab springs”, after the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia, of Mubarak in Egypt, that the Syrian regime would fall in a few weeks, after a few scuffles. However, each country in the Middle East has its rhythm, its history, its rigidities and weaknesses, but also its strengths.

Demonizing Bashar, by demanding his immediate departure, when the means to make him leave were very limited, was also very imprudent. Especially since we didn't have – at that time – any personality or party to replace him (we still don't really have one in fact).

Finally, by implementing an arms embargo, all alone, without any international agreement, Europe trapped itself. Because everyone in the world continues to deliver weapons to the protagonists. A situation that generally benefits whoever holds power.

Europeans are therefore condemned either to watch as spectators of the massacres, by issuing from time to time a “violent” oral protest and by sending some humanitarian aid, or to become more involved politically and militarily. For the moment, it is clear that it is the first option which prevails; on the political and diplomatic level, Europe remains sluggish. And it is Russia which wins.

The Russian crowbar

Underestimating the Russian desire to no longer let this happen was also strong. However the signs were notable. The Kremlin's policy, explained in particular by Russian diplomats stationed in Brussels, leaves no doubt about this desire to return to the heart of the debate. Humiliated on Kosovo, and by the American desire to put in place an anti-missile shield, Russia reacted with intervention in Georgia in 2008. Considered negligible on Libya, Russia reacts today on Syria . It uses it as a lever – a real “crowbar” in the door – to (re)establish itself as a leading interlocutor in the Middle East. Whether in negotiations with Iran, on nuclear power, its weight in Syria, while waiting for the expression of a project for peace in the Middle East, Russia is therefore making a comeback. Moscow therefore does not automatically have an interest in an end to the conflict. Just to its “containment”. It’s cynical… but it’s political reality. Like the West, however, Russia has an interest in ensuring that destabilization does not spread to the entire area.

The fractured unity of Europeans…

In this game, the Europeans are playing small. Because on the one hand the “big 2” insist on a soliloquy and leave no room for it. But also because they are divided. To be exact, they are fractured, even suffering from multiple fractures. Between supporters of a hard line, those in favor of dialogue; those who want to quickly recognize the CNS as the interlocutor, those who want to preserve other interlocutors; those who want to deliver weapons, those who do not; those who have troops in the region (Austria in the Golan, Italy in Lebanon, etc.)… we have multiple fault lines. This division does not date from today.

… on a symbol imprint region

The Middle East also constitutes a permanent headache for the European Union as the positions are diversified between the pro-Israelis and the pro-Arabs. Another difficulty: the Europeans do not have an embassy/delegation in Iran, which does not make things easier. Like the fact of having put – or wanting to put – on anti-terrorist lists, half of the organizations involved could also complicate it.

Commercial coffee according to Kepel

However, saying like Gilles Kepel that the European diplomatic structure has never produced any effect anywhere and why spend on it, is very simplistic and not really up to his talents as a political scientist. We are more in the “commercial café” than in scientific analysis. In Somalia and the Horn of Africa, as in the Balkans, in areas where we will give it “first hand”, the European system has proven its effectiveness… The Syrian conflict is just as much a failure of international diplomacy (UN), that of the United States and, even more, that of the Arab countries, than the European failure. The stagnation of the situation on the ground is firstly due to its protagonists and then to their respective direct supporters (Russia and Iran on the one hand; Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia on the other). The decision or non-decision of the Europeans carries little weight.

An alternative strategy?

In this area, Europe cannot really do it alone, or even against others. Except to produce an alternative and differentiated strategy. This is where the whole question of European diplomacy lies. By following American diplomacy quite faithfully, does it really have any weight? Or is it not rather by developing an alternative strategy that it will be able to establish itself as an “honest broker”, an intermediary in the resolution of a conflict situation. The goal of diplomacy is not really to build relationships with your friends… but with your enemies. In this case, we must maintain channels of discussion with Iran, Hezbollah, and Bashar, as with the other protagonists. The path is very narrow. But it deserves to be tried and/or made official.

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Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).

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