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Andrea Dessì

Senior Fellow within IAI's Mediterranean and Middle East Program, Editorial Director of IAI's English-language series IAI Commentaries

During the 11th EU–Russia Expert Network on Foreign Policy (EUREN) meeting, Andrea Dessì, Senior Fellow within IAI's Mediterranean and Middle East Program, who spoke at the event, discussed with the RIAC Editorial Team which outcomes he expects from the Syrian constitution talks, how the U.S. is exerting pressure on Iran via sanctions and what the EU and Russia have in common when it comes to the Middle East.

During the 11th EU–Russia Expert Network on Foreign Policy (EUREN) meeting, Andrea Dessì, Senior Fellow within IAI's Mediterranean and Middle East Program, who spoke at the event, discussed with the RIAC Editorial Team which outcomes he expects from the Syrian constitution talks, how the U.S. is exerting pressure on Iran via sanctions and what the EU and Russia have in common when it comes to the Middle East.

What key takeaways do you expect from the Syrian constitution talks in Geneva?

First of all, it’s only the first meeting, so it will take time to see how the discussions develop and it is still premature to give an assessment. The fact that the meeting is taking place despite recent developments is positive. We should all hope that the international community will use all available tools to create an environment that may lead to progress. It is important to underscore that the discussions are being held under UN auspices, and the UN will need to be given the authority to carry forward the process. There was a fear that the Turkish incursion could have undermined the planned meeting, however that does not seem to have happened, at least for now. It is way too early to say what will come of the talks and it will take a long time to reach an understanding between the three participating parties — the Assad Syrian government, the Turkish-backed opposition and civil society elements. Many serious challenges remain.

The Syrian conflict has been going on for so long, we all hope that this can be the beginning of some kind of solution on the basis of mutual agreement and understanding. This Constitutional process, although chaired by the UN, is vital for the key players in the conflict, particularly Assad’s Syria, Russia and Turkey, who all retain maximum influence in the process. EU states are, to an extent, bystanders. However Europe does retain potential influence over the outcome and will be following the process very closely.

There are multiple reasons as to why the European Union has limited influence over this situation. The EU has been sidelined in the conflict, in both its military and diplomatic spheres, and it lacks leverage over the involved parties on the ground. With regards to Syria, the EU has largely prioritized the migration issue and humanitarian aid. The EU does retain leverage in the realm of sanctions on the Assad regime and it is expected to play an important role in the reconstruction of Syria. This could potentially boost the EU’s influence looking forward.

The reality is that, like it or not, the West, including Europe, are on the losing side of the conflict in Syria and this automatically limits leverage. While the war still isn’t over, it is clear that Russia, Turkey, Iran and Assad are the major players who will define its final stages, with a limited role for the US. While we may now be seeing a gradual end to the military phase, the peace and post-conflict phases are still to be defined. Ultimately, there are no real winners in the military domain. As Syria has been completely destroyed. While Europe and the West may lack leverage over the military dimension today, the EU is expected to enjoy some influence over the post-conflict phase, and hopefully this can be used to foster more positive outcomes. The goal is to stabilize Syria and find a compromise that allows for the country’s reconstruction within a new Constitution and state and where citizens can enjoy a modicum of normalcy and rights.

It was reported recently that U.S. sanctions on Iran are limiting imports of life saving medicine. Where do you see the line between politics and the well-being of citizens?

By definition, any sanctions targeting a state and such key institutions as the Central Bank, amongst other actors, will have an impact on society. In fact this was precisely the objective of the U.S. Trump administration’s policy of maximum pressure on Iran. While U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, talks of wanting to help the people of Iran and in fact not having anything against them, the reality of these policies is that they will have a direct impact on the everyday lives of Iranians. The EU does not share the U.S. policy of maximum pressure and is particularly opposed to US secondary sanctions targeting EU companies doing business in Iran. Given the US’s dominance over the international financial system and the very close links between the EU and U.S. economies, it is very difficult for the EU and European companies to ignore U.S. sanctions. The fact is that sanctions on the Iranian Central Bank have an impact on the import of medical equipment. Although medical supplies are theoretically excluded from U.S. sanctions, in practice, due to secondary sanctions, companies dealing with this kind of equipment are encountering increased difficulty in providing such equipment to their Iranian partners.

The Trump administration hoped that economic pressure will lead to change in policies by Iran, by increasing popular pressure on the Iranian regime, an approach that again is not shared by the EU. Indeed, if the US objective was that of encouraging moderation by Iran, we can see how the results have been the direct opposite. All of this, and in particular the EU’s feeling that its security interests are not being taken into consideration by the US Trump administration, is increasing Europe’s efforts to develop autonomous or independent capabilities from the US in the foreign policy, security and economic domains. This process will take time, and the EU and US will continue to be close allies, but we are slowly starting to see movement in this domain. All of this stems from Trump’s decision to exit the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal) and Europe’s adamant insistence that the agreement should be preserved as a stepping stone for further dialogue with Iran on the Middle East.

Please tell us about Russia–EU cooperation in the Middle East.

I think that, in principle, the EU and Russia share much potential for cooperation in the Middle East, particularly in the Persian Gulf. Both sides share their support for the JCPOA, as well as multilateralism and inclusivity in their approaches to the Middle East. Both are concerned by terrorism, migration and nuclear non-proliferation and both support a two-state framework for Israel-Palestine. The fact that Russia proposed a cooperative multilateral security framework for the Persian Gulf demonstrates certain overlaps with the EU’s own preferences for multilateralism and cooperative security frameworks. Indeed the language of Russia’s proposal is very similar to that which is usually endorsed by the EU, which (excluding the UK) has thus far declined to support a US-backed naval mission to the Persian Gulf due to it being based on an effort to exclude and contain Iran. Multilateralism and cooperative regional orders are clearly outlined in EU documents, such as the EU Global Strategy. However, as with everything EU-Russia related, there are political problems which have prevented sincere cooperation between the two actors, mostly related to the European continent, Russia’s actions in Ukraine, tensions over NATO and the concern of many EU nations vis-à-vis Russian interferences.

However, if we separate the European continent from the Middle East, and its import to find means to do this, the EU and Russia can maintain ad hoc forms of cooperation on certain dossiers, while not ignoring their deep disagreements in other fields. Of course, Syria is another difficult dossier in the relationship, however even here, both sides share an interest in national stabilization and the belief that Syria should remain a united country. While deep disagreements exist in the military domain, looking forward, Syria could – and I would say should – become a key testing ground for the potential of EU-Russia cooperation in the Middle East. European countries will remain closely aligned with U.S. policy, even though it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s not always possible to see eye to eye with the U.S. in certain matters. We can only hope in the long-term that the EU and Russia’s shared embracement of multilateralism and the UN may provide a solid groundwork on which to foster more cooperative regional engagement in the Middle East, also by convincing the US to return to a more stable and predictable foreign policy towards the region.

On October 26, 2019, the Iraqi-born leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed during a U.S. raid. What do you make of his death and what consequences could that have for ISIS and international terrorism as a whole?

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The killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is definitely a further blow to ISIS as it eliminated its operational leader. However, the reality of the ISIS threat, and perhaps more so than other groups such as Al-Qaida, is that ISIS is less of a hierarchical organization. The elimination of its leader will pose difficulties to its operations in Syria and Iraq, where they were already significantly weakened, but does not necessarily limit the capabilities of other members or affiliated cells. The territorial control of ISIS had already been severely limited in Syria and Iraq before al-Baghdadi’s killing and the threat had diminished as a consequence of the end of the territorial caliphate. The threat of ISIS, however, is not only limited to its territorial control, but even more so to its ideological component, which is harder to counter. We know that ISIS has already chosen a new leader, and as often happens, when you eliminate the head, the person that comes after is usually even more of a risk. The main priority now is to resolve the issue for thousands of ISIS fighters and affiliates, as well as wives and children who are in prison camps in North-East Syria and Iraq. This is another domain where international cooperation will be necessary to ensure that the instability in these regions do not lead to an ISIS 2.0.

It is in this context that international actors need to learn the lesson of Iraq. Any diplomatic agreement to end the conflict in Syria should ensure that the grievances and drivers that lead to the revolt in the first place are not ignored. Only an inclusive and more transparent Syria and Middle East more broadly will be able to counter the ideological threat posed by ISIS and other terrorist organizations, which feed on conflict, exclusion and authoritarianism.

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