Europe has unmistakably softened its posture on Bashar al-Assad recently, with leaders of key countries in the refugee-plagued bloc coyly acknowledging the beginnings of unified policy on Syria.
Given the shock of the non-stop influx of refugees, Europe's longstanding narrative on Syria has shifted from being anti-Assad to something of a grey area – neither in favor, nor against, the embattled president.
For the Europeans, ISIS is now the embodiment of all terror in Syria. And in the European rhetoric, a regime change is no longer a necessity.
The refugee crisis is a key reason behind the abrupt paradigm shift. The Europeans are concerned about a possible – and, for some, inevitable – demographic impact given the non-stop influx of refugees.
Because of this, European leaders have begun calculating other options to address Syria’s four-and-a-half-year conflict, especially given that its consequences have reached the shores of the European bloc, which already had its share of geopolitical and economic problems. The new position on Syria has not been announced as a unified policy of the European Union – but takes the form of remarks made by individual countries’ leaders that all, in a way or another, mean the same.
All change on regime change
For the UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, Assad could remain in office for six months with his “eventual” departure within a transition process agreed with the Russians and Iranians. Hammond was also quoted as saying that regime change is not the direct aim of possible UK strikes on Syria, which would be intended to disrupt ISIS’ hold on Raqqa.
Austria’s Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz has called on European leaders to be “pragmatic” on Syria, urging the West to collaborate with Assad in defeating ISIS. The EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker is also urging for a “pragmatic” approach in responding to the refugee crisis, and has shied away from even alluding to Assad’s brutality as the reason behind the Syrian refugee crisis, linking the large numbers of asylum seekers to ISIS’ cruelty.
The Europeans are wrong in their conviction that ISIS alone is the embodiment of all terror in Syria.Raed Omari
Such statements certainly signal a departure from the West’s official posture on the conflict in Syria which, for almost five years, advocated regime change and accused Assad of committing war crimes against his own people. Since the early beginnings of the Syrian war, the departure of Assad seemed to be an irreversible demand for the British and French – but things have changed considerably, probably as a result of the recent refugee dilemma and new developments on the ground in Syria, paramount of which was the news about Russia sending in troops and weapons.
Refugees from ISIS territory
What contributed to Europe’s emerging conviction that Assad's brutality is, so to speak, less brutal than that of ISIS is the fact that most of the thousands of Syrian and Iraqi asylum seekers come from territories held by the militant organization. Very few refugees are coming to Europe from Assad’s Damascus – but from Raqqa, Aleppo, Kobani and other Syrian districts where ISIS is active.
No matter what the Assad regime is, for the Europeans – and, to a lesser degree, the Americans – it is easier to communicate and deal with, compared to ISIS. The Syrian regime has its institutions and can be brought to negotiating tables – unlike ISIS.
And let us not forget that Europe, after the signing of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 group of world powers, is not the same Europe as it was before. The bloc is pinning hopes that the deal could open doors for more economic cooperation between oil-rich Iran and EU member states. Shortly after the deal was signed, some European leaders flew to Tehran, sending a signal to the U.S. about their eagerness to lift the sanctions and begin a new chapter of economic cooperation. For the Europeans to continue their anti-Assad position – which in a way also means they are against the Ayatollah’s regime – has consequences on the Iran deal and, consequently, the envisioned economic cooperation with Iran.
It is however Russia’s stubborn position on Syria and its unaltered support of the Syrian regime that is, in my opinion, a major factor behind Europe’s softening of its anti-Assad rhetoric. In order to avoid angering the Russians in ‘nearby’ Ukraine, the Europeans decided to calm them in ‘far away’ Syria – which also proved to be very close.
Whilst ISIS’s brutality and threat are undeniable and should be a source of concern, the Europeans are wrong in their conviction that ISIS alone is the embodiment of all terror in Syria.
Raed Omari is a Jordanian journalist, political analyst, parliamentary affairs expert, and commentator on local and regional political affairs. His writing focuses on the Arab Spring, press freedoms, Islamist groups, emerging economies, climate change, natural disasters, agriculture, the environment and social media. He is a writer for The Jordan Times, and contributes to Al Arabiya English. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @RaedAlOmari2