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Europe should consider cooperating with Russia on Syria's rebuilding
by Christos Mouzeviris
2018-09-19 07:41:26
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Russian President Vladimir Putin recently called on Europe to financially contribute to the reconstruction of Syria to allow millions of refugees to return home.

"We need to strengthen the humanitarian effort in the Syrian conflict," he said ahead of a meeting with his German counterpart Angela Merkel.

"By that, I mean above all humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, and help the regions where refugees living abroad can return to." (The Local.De)

euruss01_400However, such development is highly unlikely to happen, since Europe is not only in an ongoing political disagreement and conflict with Russia, but if it gives Putin what he wants, it will be endorsing the Assad regime in Syria. Plus of course it will appear that it bows to Putin's leadership.

Yet our continent needs to slightly rethink its position on Syria and Russia. We must start rebuilding the Middle Eastern country, primarily for humanitarian reasons. Not just Europe, but the whole global community have failed the Syrian people, sacrificing them at the altar of regional politics and the adjacent Western interests. Indifference and xenophobia did the rest.

In addition to the duty that we hold as a continent to stand for humanity's decency and well-being, we should be distancing ourselves from petty local rivalries and US meddling in the region. Sticking to our Euro-Atlantic alliance at all costs, especially since now America is shifting its focus away from the traditional relations between us, is not necessarily in our interests.

Unlike the US which is positioned further away, Syria and the Middle East are located right in Europe's neighbourhood. Any instability in this region affects us directly. Since the start of the conflict in Syria, our continent was forced to accept millions of Syrian refugees and the numbers will still rise, the longer this crisis continues.

Coupled with the aftermath of the economic downturn, the refugee emergency placed an additional strain among EU member states, on how to deal with this problem and how to accommodate such an influx of people.

This challenge created further divisions within Europe, with some states like Germany and Sweden responding very positively, while others like Poland and Hungary breaking the EU lines, by raising fences and refuse the block's migrant quota.

In the countries at the front-line of this crisis, the situation was increasingly becoming dire. While the rest of Europe was refusing to take refugees in, Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain were expected to tackle the situation almost by themselves, with primarily financial support coming from Brussels; in a time that they were already struggling in the aftermath of the euro crisis.

But the situation cannot be solved by maintaining overcrowded refugee camps, with EU money; not in the long term. First of all some of them have become inhospitable, like the one on the Greek island of Lesbos at Moria.

Children as young as 10 years of age have been reportedly been attempting suicide, while the situation in this camp has been slowly descending into chaos, with totally unacceptable conditions for those trapped in it.

And while one could be quick to place all blame on the Greek authorities, what has the rest of Europe been doing, apart from financing these camps which should be functioning as the first stop towards Europe, not a permanent one. This is not Greece's problem, but a European one and we should be witnessing European “solidarity” when tackling it.

Additionally, even countries that previously were willing to help are turning increasingly xenophobic, as far-right or nationalist groups are gaining ground. The party of Sweden Democrats have made major gains in the country and if Sweden, a beacon of human rights and liberalism in the EU turns euro-sceptic then this is bad news for Europe overall.

Further to the South, Italy has already elected a populist government and we already see a U-turn on the country's stance on the issue and towards the EU. Together with Hungary, they have vowed to work together to pursue a new hard-line approach to migrants searching for a new life inside the European Union.

Italian Deputy Prime Matteo Salvini, who has ordered ports closed to most migrant arrivals by sea, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose government built a border wall, cemented their political ties in talks in Milan recently, clearly becoming the two fiercest critics of the current European immigration policy. (The Sydney Morning Herald)

Considering all the above, Brussels should reconsider. Our priorities should lie with our humanitarian efforts and work on rebuilding the country, stabilizing it together with the whole region. The EU cannot allow this conflict to be perpetuated, just to satisfy America and its allies in the region that want Assad gone.

This war is offering no benefit to us whatsoever. We may agree that the Assad regime is not compatible with our values, but so is that of Saudi Arabia. I haven't seen any sanctions towards it at any time. Assad has proven that he is not Gaddafi and that Syria is not Libya, in the context that he is not standing on its own, like his Libyan counterpart; he has, either we like it or not, the support of Russia. 

We cannot engage in warfare with Syria, Iran and the Russians. Assad's regime is winning this war, his victory is almost entire and only in the region of Idlib the rebels are still holding on. Europe and the West must realize that Syria can only become stable again, with Assad sadly still in power of some sort. Unless we could work with the Russians and lobby them, to convince them to remove him into exile, leaving his country to heal its wounds with a new government.

Some will argue that he should end up in the Hague and perhaps he should. But it is unlikely that his Russian allies will allow this, as things stand. That is why Europe needs to move very cautiously and diplomatic, bending perhaps its staunch position on Putin, Russia and the Syrian war, at least temporarily. This is a civil war that has been raging for 7 years now and clearly there have been many crimes, committed from both sides.

However Assad's actions towards his own civilians that opposed him were made harsher, by the fate of Gaddafi and his regime; if you were Assad, wouldn’t you fight with all you got to avoid such fate? That is not an excuse for his actions; however it was expected of him. Perhaps those who wanted Gaddafi gone should have cared for a better fate for him and Libya itself, after his removal from power.

Europe’s interests for the immediate future should be with peace in the region, so that we won't have to deal with even more refugees for the long term. We cannot afford it economically, socially and obviously, politically. It is also morally the right thing to do, from a humanitarian point of view.

And although we might have our differences with Russia and Vladimir Putin, it will be wise to consider working closely; with his government or independently from it, if we find so hard to accept that we should cooperate in helping Syria’s efforts for reconstruction. Not for its government’s sake, but for its people and the greater good.

Unless we are willing to accept more immigrants or sanction permanent residency to the ones already here, we have no other choice . We won’t be able to send the over 1 million Syrian refugees that have entered Europe back, with an unstable, hostile Syrian regime; either this is Assad's or the rebels'. 

We are part of this conflict either we like it or not, by hosting-as we should- a great number of refugees from the war torn country. However our choices from now on are either to integrate the Syrians in Europe, while perpetuating the war by refusing to accept Assad's victory, or get involved to rebuilt the country and start the repatriation process. 

If we chose the second option, perhaps we could use as bargaining chip the pardoning those who will return. If these people have found refuge in Europe, but their families have joined the rebels' cause, I can't see them willing to return in a country in which Assad will no doubt try to tighten his grip in every aspect. 

Even if the rebels were victorious, they would probably do the same to Assad's supporters that fled into Europe. We could negotiate with the new government of Syria, with or without Assad, plus the Russians for a smoother transition in the process. 

Besides, we have another conflict right at our doorstep, that of Ukraine. It hasn't subsided at all, despite not being currently at the spotlight. There is a chance that by cooperating with our "enemy" on ending one conflict, we could learn working with them to achieve the termination of another.

Sanctions and Russia-bashing have not delivered any solutions, apart from badly affecting the Russian economy. However, Putin is not backing down on Ukraine or Syria and it is obvious that he is going to push all the way he can.

Europe’s response is to stick with America and keep the pressure, in order perhaps to force the Russians abandon Putin and his government’s meddling in those regions.

Yet they ignore that the Russian President enjoys high popularity in Russia, even among the country’s youth. For some, he is the only leader they have known. His long reign in the country has seen nearly a generation of young Russians, growing up under his rule.

According to them, his policies have restored Russia’s pride after the collapse of the USSR, while he saved the country from deepening disintegration and economic collapse. Many are happy about the way things are, plus they feel nostalgic towards their nation’s old “realm,” or sphere of influence.

When I was in Russia last March, some of the youths I have met confessed how they love to travel in former Soviet republics, to familiarize themselves with what used to be once part of their country.

So by applying constantly sanctions against Russia, to topple Putin or force him to comply, we may be doing more harm after all. If we hurt the Russian economy, we destroy this youth’s chances and opportunities, which will inevitably coil around Putin or someone just like him for many years to come.

Our hostility towards their leader might make them increasingly more anti-West and in the future keener in a stronger Russian influence in the region, as a reaction to our sanctions.

Yet both Europeans and the Russians need to realize that geopolitics keeps changing. The Soviet Union is gone and although some Russians would want to see their country back at its peak, many former USSR states have now turned towards Europe.

Instead of fighting over their allegiance, we must realize that they could act like a bridge between the two spheres of influence. However, both sides squabble over them, mainly because of NATO and the USA factor. With every new EU state entering the alliance, Russia finds itself increasingly closer to American missiles from its western front, but also from the east. That doesn’t go down very easily.

Consequently, Putin’s invasion of Georgia and annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, were a mistake. However he was clearly trying to give a message to NATO and the West, that Russia is back in game and that if they continue invading or toppling governments in countries close to Russia, geographically or politically, that he had the right to do the same.

Personally I find the attitude of both sides outdated, as I am clearly not interested in belonging in any block, perpetually at war with its neighbours. I stand for dialogue and a “middle way,” even when it comes discussing with countries that we don’t agree with.

We have no problem trading our outsourcing jobs to China, despite them not being a liberal, fully democratic society. If we manage to establish a better relationship with Russia, maybe we could find a way around our differences.

The problem is, that it is Europe and the “West” that wants to cut Russia off from its affairs, reduce its energy reliance on them and lift another “iron curtain,” this time further to the East, engulfing many of the former Soviet states.

Something that Russia of course strongly opposes, as it will see its weakening role in Europe, politically and financially. They seem to be keen in being part of our continent, too bad that the EU does not reciprocate their intentions.

But we need to understand that holding on to grudges and Russo-phobia, only perpetuates bad relations between two neighbors. Either we like it or not, Russia is not going to go away and the further we expand to the East, the more borders we will share with the Russians.

Finally, if we want them out of our affairs for good, we better find a way to become more energy sufficient, plus help the countries that heavily rely still on Russian oil and gas. But why we insist on making enemies of them?

If Ukraine is allowed in the EU and NATO with its large Russian population, it will mean that we will have to accept all of them as EU citizens. Perhaps that is another factor that polarizes the situation, in both sides. There are currently about 7 million Russians in Ukraine, excluding the annexed Crimea region.

If Ukraine joins the EU and NATO in the near future, the ethnic Russian citizens of both blocks will outnumber those of countries like Ireland or all the Baltic nations combined. By constantly maintaining hostile relations with Russia, how will this population respond?

Unless of course Ukraine's integration into these institutions will be just another Turkey. Maintaining the prospect for decades in order to keep the country under Western influence, but never materializing it.

However if we look at Estonia and how it gradually changed its own stance towards its Russian minority, we could make Russians in Ukraine feel more at home; yet this additionally requires better EU-Russian relations.

To conclude, Putin's recent visit to Austria and Germany, signifies an interest from the Russian side for cooperation with Europe, even if it naturally aims mainly to promote his country's interests in our continent.

We should engage in this dialogue, making sure of course that we show a united front-not a fragmented one- when it comes in promoting ours. If we take pride in our motto "united in diversity," this is one of the times we will have to prove and stick to it.


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