Hopes rest on United Nations sponsored talks
Syria’s crisis looms larger and larger over its own region and over Europe’s efforts to cope with the flow of refugees seeking a better life here despite the perils of winter. At last, serious efforts are being made to explore how the civil war can be resolved, as United Nations sponsored talks are set to start next week in Geneva. They are challenged by deep disagreements over representation, processes and outcomes but must be given a proper chance to make progress.
The stark facts of Syrian death and suffering should be kept in the foreground and not overshadowed by such disagreements. The war has displaced 12 million people. At least 250,000 people have been killed. Much of its infrastructure is destroyed, necessitating an immense reconstruction programme as part of any settlement. Intervention by global and regional powers has stoked and prolonged the conflict, just as their competing interests have given opportunities to the ruthless fundamentalists of Islamic State to claim and establish territory in Syria and Iraq.
Those rivalries are still delaying the Geneva talks, notably between Saudi Arabia which insists it should lead the opposition forces and Kurdish claims to have a separate role arising from their successful campaigns against IS. In Turkey the government is pursuing a ruinous war against Kurdish separatism for domestically opportunist reasons. That takes from its efforts to look after the two million Syrian refugees living there. In Lebanon and Jordan too there are limits to their capacity and willingness for hospitality and care.
Looked at from Europe these neighbouring states of Syria have borne a quite disproportionate burden arising from the conflict. Only this autumn have European leaders concentrated on helping them out more generously, driven by the huge flow of refugees coming here from the war. It has not stopped as expected as the weather got worse. Indeed the increasingly differentiated response of European Union member-states to the refugee crisis casts a wintry gloom over the very processes of human and economic integration that have brought the continent more together over the last generation.
The European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker warns with good reason that the passport-free Schengen system is endangered as border controls go up between Sweden and Denmark, Austria and Germany, and Macedonia and Hungary. As he puts it, “whoever kills Schengen carries the internal market to its grave. The damage for the European growth perspectives will be enormous...the euro [WILL]make no sense”. Add to that disagreements over changing the EU’s rules on where refugees can settle and it can readily be seen how destructive the Syrian war has been for Europe’s unity. This is all the more reason why Europeans should support these peace talks.