Blog: "Support Syrian opposition in talks with regime to break current stalemate"

The cautious rapprochement by the Syrian Opposition Coalition to the current regime and Russia should get the EU's full backing and support. Given the ongoing brutal violence over the past two years a political solution is the fastest way to end the violence in Syria. Preventing more civilian casualties should be the EU's top priority. To that end unrestricted humanitarian access is of enormous importance. The EU should lead international efforts towards a UN mandate enabling direct and cross-border aid operations, most urgently from Turkey. These are the most realistic steps towards a breakthrough in the Syrian impasse. Yesterday in Brussels the EU's Foreign Ministers discussed the situation in Syria, a day after the International Syria-envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, from Cairo called for talks on neutral UN-premises. Today President Putin meets King Abdullah of Jordan to discuss the Syrian crisis and the flow of refugees throughout the region. On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry discussed the potential of a dialogue with his Russian counterpart Lavrov. This week EU foreign chief Ashton also meets Lavrov during the EU-Russia political dialogue. With a slight change of position Russia has enabled a new momentum for a negotiated solution. Also the EU's foreign ministers concluded that a Syrian-led political process is key in finding a solution to the current crisis and pledged their support in any possible way. This support will primarily find its way beneath the surface and through diplomatic channels and demarches. The very same paths that long have been blocked by a near automatic Russian veto given the precondition of Assad's departure that was an element of all previous efforts. In that context the performance by Sjeik Achmed Moaz al-Khatib, the Syrian opposition Council's President, at the annual Security conference in Munich this month has been a major breakthrough. In Munich al-Khatib took a great political risk by no longer excluding the option of direct talks with the current regime, provided their hands are not "stained with blood". He also met with Lavrov for the first time. After 23 months of violence and over 70.000 thousands of deaths, Moscow still vigorously contests any form of foreign dictated regime change. Saving Assad, Russia wants Syrians to solve the crisis domestically and therefore is not a priori opposed to the idea of a political dialogue, provided that Assad does not have to leave first. Al-Khatib does have two other important preconditions: the release of over 150.000 citizens currently jailed and the issuing of passports to Syrian refugees in camps in neighbouring countries. These conditions should ensure popular support for the negotiations among the already fragmented opposition coalition. Al-Khatib faced strong internal criticism on his u-turn and new direction towards the negotiating table, leading to public questioning of his leadership and support. But the internal disagreement seems to have been resolved. Still, the EU has to do much more to connect and unite the several opposition movements that unfortunately are primarily united in words rather than practice under the current coalition umbrella. A solid and firm unity coalition is a more credible negotiating partner and later one of the building blocks of a transition government. For Russia a credible and reliable alternative for the Assad regime is also essential. Aside from organizational and technical support the EU has to get as much aid to Syrians as soon as possible. The ongoing shelling, increasing famine and desperation because of the current military stalemate are driving ordinary Syrians into despair, especially if they receive nothing after the announcements of major Western support and relief efforts. Frustration and anger also undermine the support for al-Khatib and his willingness to engage in direct talks. It in turn helps extremists entering the country from neighbouring countries to build support and play an increasingly decisive role. At this point in the conflict and with the current circumstances, not offensive arms but aid should first reach the population. Today, the Syrian Red Crescent is practically the only aid organization currently allowed by Assad to provide aid. It has to negotiate access to parts of Syria, both with the regime and several (armed) opposition movements. Aid is only scarcely entering the country and cannot be systematically distributed. While making a true difference, aid supplies from neighbouring countries, like Turkey is difficult, because the Syrian government demands the country's borders are respected. With cross-border access, local networks of civilians and volunteers who risk their lives everyday, could step up their aid deliveries and can be more professionally deployed. The EU should use all its power to get an UN Security Council mandate for unrestricted access of aid, including from neighbouring countries. All sides to the conflict have to respect such a mandate. The opposition's willingness to start talks with the regime could hopefully create space for Russia to support a humanitarian mandate. Additionally, the EU itself should take in more Syrian refugees. In the nineties, during the war in former Yugoslavia, large numbers of refugees were granted temporary emergency asylum. Another lesson we should draw from former Yugoslavia is that dictators in times of war only speak in the language of violence. The international community should set a clear ultimatum and be willing to back its deadline with the threat of military intervention. The EU until today has pledged over 350 million Euros in aid. We must make sure it actually reaches the people. In the 'liberated areas' al-Khatib's coalition and parts of the Free Syrian Army could play an operational role in the distribution of aid. This would increase both their internal and external legitimacy. With a UN mandate the international community can give Assad a clear ultimatum and enforce secure aid access. At this time, strong language or giving false hopes of arming the rebels, effectively hiding the impotence to solve the ongoing conflict, can do more harm than good. Building on support for a political solution, both internationally as well as in Syria should be our highest priority.