A panel discussion on the conflict of Syria took place at the University of Tampere on 4 April 2016. The event was organized by the CBIR / Russian and European Studies Master Programme students in conjunction with the course “Stepping Stones for Working Life in the Field of EU-Russia Relations” and with the support of the Jean Monnet Progamme of the European Commission.
The event was opened by one of the students, Mr. Reyver Serna, afterwards giving the lead for the event moderator Mr. Jukka Huusko.
The speakers of the event were given the floor to present their views:
Mr. Mikko Patokallio, Analyst in CMI’s Programme Management Office (PMO) in Helsinki, discussed the overall challenges and involved parties in the Syrian conflict. There are three levels to be considered: the international, the regional and the local levels. Also both the opposition and the government coalitions are diverse and face the challenges of fragmentation. The opposition coalition is backed by various outer powers that have varying motives. For the regime coalition (military) resources form a primary challenge.
Mr. Patokallio outlined four broad visions for Syria that exist among the Syrians: The regime’s vision of return to 2010 situation, opposition’s essentially anti-Assad stand, a vision by the Syrian Kurds and the vision provided by ISIS. The last one is clearly non-desirable and this has been utilised to rally support for other visions, as the government has done.
Mr. Patokallio stressed that neither the opposition nor government can win the war alone and thus both sides are dependent on outside support. However, besides the challenges of fragmentation in both camps, ISIS is also attacking both the regime and the opposition forces. Mr. Patokallio concluded that it is important to understand that ISIS can manipulate faultlines, and in order to get it out, the underlying faultlines need to be tackled. ISIS cannot be eliminated without affecting the overall balances in the conflict.
Ms. Petrova, PhD fellow at the Leuven International and European Studies, University of Leuven, outlined the EU’s responses to the crisis in Syria. Ms. Petrova criticized the EU sanctions for a lack of effectivity at least in the short and mid-term. She also discussed humanitarian aid, that is a central question in the EU, outlining the challenges with regard to access to the areas affected by the conflict and delivering funding. Further, the EU’s efforts have been through international meetings, work by the High Representative Federica Mogherini, and support to the UN led initiatives.
According to Ms. Petrova, only individual member states, France and the UK, have engaged in tougher measures through military intervention. However, the EU should better coordinate such military initiatives. The EU should also support a parallel state as an alternative to Assads regime. She pointed out that Russian and EU views have become closer what comes to Assad having to leave.
Dr. Ekaterina Stepanova, a Head of the Peace and Conflict Studies Unit, Institute of the World Economy and International Relations in Moscow, discussed mainly the Russian actions drawing attention to why Russia, that has previously had limited engagement with the Middle East, has since the Syrian conflict increased its presence. Conducting attacks for seven months, playing a role in reactivating the Geneva talks as well as brokering the ceasefire, all reflect Russia’s position as the other leading power in Syria besides the USA.
According to Dr. Stepanova this increased engagement signifies the end of the post-Soviet period. She argues that Russian involvement is not about the Middle East or Syria per se, but about Russia’s foreign relations more broadly and in particular with the West. This is not to deny genuine concerns about the turmoil or about potential terrorism related domestic connections to Russia, but rather these factors alone would not have sufficed to lead to a Russian intervention.
Essentially Syria holds instrumental goals for Russia: Bringing Russia back into the forefront of international politics, tackling terrorism concerns and overshadowing the negative repercussions of the Ukraine conflict, all of which have already been achieved by Russia. Dr. Stepanova stressed that Syria provided a deep strategic moment for Russia. The country needed to have a chance to demonstrate that it can act alone, only to get future leverage for multilateral fronts with the West in its own terms. With the real threat last summer of the jihadists taking over, Russia could demonstrate that its intervention through airstrikes, that helped the government to rebalance militarily, prevented something worse.
Turning to the discussion part of the event, the audience posed many questions, also expressing concern over the humanitarian situation, and where that fits into the big political picture.
What comes to questions about the great power relations with respect to the Syrian conflict, Dr. Stepanova pointed that amidst the huge upheaval the Middle East has experienced, the role of external powers in the region has been declining, despite the risks posed internationally have increased from terrorism to migration. Even the regional powers such as Saudi-Arabia and Turkey have at times been more relevant actors than major external powers. Asked, whether the events could be likened to a ‘New Cold War’, Stepanova strongly disagreed. She emphasized that Russia’s power is constrained and it is no global superpower with military weight. Russia’s real interest lies only in part of the post-Soviet space.
The discussion turned on to whether the EU and Russia (can) have a common vision on Syria. Mr. Patokallio believes there to be common ground, but moving any solution from paper to reality would be difficult. Ms. Petrova sees attaining cooperation between the EU and Russia difficult, due to the deteriorisation of the relations since 2014. Whereas more dialogue and compromise would be needed to open channels for political dialoque, a larger factor is the Russian discontent with the security archtitecture that is centered on NATO. She argues that an inclusive security architecture in Europe would be needed to get Russia involved. Dr. Stepanova pointed that the Russian position has not been static. At present, chances for political process are there, and Russia has clearly moved away from one-sided support to Assad. There are, however, discrepancies in the parties visions for the Middle East. Whereas the West and the EU stress the need to create a democratic, united and secular Syria, western style liberal democracy would not a be a solution from the Russian perspective, since this would only provide the islamist groups a chance to gain foothold. Hence, Russia supports instead a pluralistic system, democracy by decentralization and better representation, but not in as deep degree as in Lebanon. Dr. Stepanova concluded that in this picture removing Assad has become a question of technicality. Even the Russian military scale down can be seen as a message to Assad that Russia will not back him up.
Could the anticipated cooperation among the international community in the restoration of Palmyra be an example of possible practical cooperation between the EU and Russia? Mr. Patokallio remarks that this would still require time before possibly happening. Dr. Stepanova sees it as a symbolic action that nevertheless could be a good starting point for cooperation. However, the proximity of Palmyra to the frontline would cause delay in this.
Summary prepared by Jessica Diepenbroek.
Photos by Anna Laitinen.