Can Europe Save Syria?

As Russia and the U.S. flounder, European leaders initiate fresh diplomatic efforts

Published: May 4, 2016 

As the U.S.-Russian efforts to reinstate Syria’s nationwide ceasefire continue to fall short, European powers appear to be taking the lead in a fresh burst of diplomatic effort:

This afternoon the UN Security Council will hold an emergency session on the situation in Aleppo. This session came at the request of France and Britain. Jeffrey Feltman, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, is expected to brief the council on recent developments on the ground.

Also today, German Foreign Minister (FM) Frank-Walter Steinmeier will hold a high-level meeting in Berlin to discuss how to rescue the Syria negotiations. Attendees will include: French FM Jean-Marc Ayrault, UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, and Riad Hijab, Coordinator of the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee. “At the center of the talks is the question of how to create the conditions to continue Syria peace talks in Geneva and to reduce the violence and improve the humanitarian situation in Syria,” said the German Foreign Ministry statement. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu called France’s Ayrault prior to the meeting and “exchanged views” on current developments in Syria.

Also today, French government spokesman Stéphane Le Foll announced that next week on Monday 09 May, France will host the Foreign Ministers of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates to discuss the breakdown in the Syrian peace process.

Despite U.S. and Russian claims that they are on the brink of reinstating the cessation of hostilities and extending it to Aleppo, the situation on the ground continues to deteriorate. Syrian government airstrikes once again began pounding the countryside of Damascus today after a temporary “regime of calm” was imposed for several days. In Aleppo, rebels have launched new ground offensives against pro-government forces in the face of an increasingly desperate situation with escalating airstrikes.

The prognosis is also grim for humanitarian access to besieged and hard-to-reached areas. After an ISSG Humanitarian Task Force meeting today, Staffan de Mistura’s Special Advisor Jan Egeland warned that if there are not changes in the situation soon, “Eastern Aleppo may even become a besieged area.” The UN cannot reach it with humanitarian aid because the fighting is so intense, but also because the Syrian government has denied recent requests to send in aid convoys. Egeland said that of the humanitarian access requests made in the UN’s May plan, submitted to the Syrian government in April: only 25% of the requests were approved, 25% were approved with restrictive conditions, and 50% were denied, including Eastern Aleppo.

Is this burst of activity by European leaders a sign that Europe has lost faith in the U.S.’s ability to navigate through this crisis? If so, they will likely be seeking to diverge from the failing model of U.S. and Russian ISSG co-chairs presiding over a deteriorating ceasefire with no clear enforcement or accountability mechanisms. This could mean that we will see some interesting diplomatic developments in the coming days.

Note: The “featured image” used for this post on our main Blog page is by Syrian artist Anwar al Eissa and can be found here.