First the stick, then the carrot. Just days after the US, Britain and France launched a targeted missile strike, the European Union is planning a new peace initiative for Syria. But the 28-nation bloc – and even Germany’s own government – remains divided about whether Syrian President Bashar Assad can remain in office after the latest use of chemical weapons against his people.
“People are suffering, people are dying, and I think the entire international community should take responsibility,” EU foreign policy chief Frederica Mogherini said Monday at a meeting of European foreign ministers in Luxembourg.
The push for a Syrian peace process will take place next week when a donor conference meets in Brussels to discuss financial support for the reconstruction of Syria, but Ms. Mogherini said any financial assistance will depend on the political process moving forward under UN auspices. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said all available options should be used to get a political solution back on track.
“Nobody can imagine that anyone who uses chemical weapons against their people can be part of that solution.”
Mr. Maas also adopted a hardline against the current Syrian government following a chlorine gas attack April 7, which prompted a punitive missile raid on a Syrian government poison gas development center Saturday by the United States, Britain and France. “Nobody can imagine that anyone who uses chemical weapons against their people can be part of that solution,” Mr. Maas said in a reference to Mr. Assad.
But showing just how divisive the Syria can be, Jürgen Hardt, one of the leading foreign affairs spokesmen for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union in parliament, quickly rejected that notion. “It is obvious that Russia cannot agree to a solution without Assad,” he said.
The discord highlights why Germany has struggled to be a bigger player in the Syria conflict. Volker Perthes, director of the German Inistitute of International and Security Affairs as well as the chairman of the UN ceasefire task force, said there was only a limited role that Germany could play at this point because it had abstained from taking part in the missile attack. “France is currently in a slightly better position because the leadership in Moscow is taking demonstrations of strength very seriously,” he said.
While it didn’t agree to participate in the missile attacks, the Berlin government said it supported the military action as “necessary and appropriate.”
Mr. Mass said he agreed with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian that the political process to find a peaceful solution in Syria should be resumed. As a first step, he said a nationwide ceasefire and access to humanitarian services would have to be agreed. In a second step, a transitional government would have to be formed and the constitution revised. At the end of the process, there must be elections “someday.”
Mr. Maas, Mr. Le Drian and Ms. Mogherini said they believe the US, French and British air strikes are bringing new impetus to the stalled Geneva peace talks under UN mediation. France wants to present new proposals to the United Nations in New York. Talks with Arab leaders have also shown that there is “a clear need for a new initiative,” Ms. Mogherini said.
While the Europeans are hoping to chart a course for resumption of the Geneva talks, the facts on the ground in Syria are not particularly encouraging. With Russian and Iranian help, the Assad government has reconquered much of the territory that was lost to the opposition forces such as the Islamic state, giving the Damascus regime less of an incentive to discuss a political solution than it had two years ago when its support was much smaller.. In addition, the Trump Administration is planning new sanctions against Russia because of its support for Mr. Assad and his use of chemical weapons.
According to EU diplomats, European states want to agree on a common approach to Syrian peace talks before approaching Russia and Turkey. The German foreign minister said there was a need for a “constructive contribution” from Russia and Iran, the two powers supporting the Assad regime. “Whether you like it or not, without Russia you will not be able to start the process again,” Mr. Maas said.
Mr. Perthes said he was optimistic about the chances for a ceasefire. “Perhaps there is a chance to launch a new or renewed diplomatic process because nobody wants the big powers to get into an escalation spiral,” he said.
Charles Wallace is an editor for Handelsblatt Global in New York. Till Hoppe is Handelsblatt’s Brussels correspondent and Torsten Riecke covers international affairs for Handelsblatt from Berlin. To contact teh authors: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org