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19th Jan 2020

EU stands alone against US and Russia on Syria

  • Russia's veto was its 14th United Nations Security Council one on Syria in the past eight years (Photo: United Nations Photo)

EU diplomats stood alone against the US and Russia on Syria at the UN on Thursday (10 October), painting a bleak picture of transatlantic relations.

EU envoys to the UN Security Council (UNSC), from Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Poland, and the UK spoke to press in New York after the US and Russia blocked an EU-drafted UN resolution on the conflict.

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The German ambassador, Jurgen Schulz, read out the EU statement anyway.

"We call upon Turkey to cease the unilateral military action," Schulz said, as the Turkish military bombarded Kurdish positions in northern Syria and Kurdish artillery fired on Turkish towns on the other side of the border.

The Turkish offensive would create "fertile ground for the resurgence of Da'esh" in a "significant threat to regional, international, and European security", Schulz added, referring to an Islamist militant group that is also known as Isis.

It would "exacerbate civilian suffering and provoke further displacements which will further increase the number of refugees," Schulz said.

The call was echoed in Paris, where French president Emmanuel Macron said Turkey was "putting millions of people at humanitarian risk", and in Rome, where Italian foreign minister Luigi Di Maio "condemned" Turkey's actions.

But back in New York, the US ambassador to the UN, Kelly Craft, and the Russian envoy, Vassily Nebenzia, took a different line.

The US did not ask Turkey to stop, although Craft did say, in her own press briefing, that: "Failure [by Turkey] to play by the rules, to protect vulnerable populations, failure to guarantee that Isis cannot exploit these actions to reconstitute, will have consequences".

Russia, wielding its 14th UNSC veto to date on the Syria war, said it did not endorse the EU statement because it did not "speak about the illegal military presence in that country and the need to terminate it immediately", referring to European and US coalition forces.

The Kurds had fought against Isis alongside Western special forces and air power. They had also fought against the Russia-backed Syrian regime.

But Nebenzia mocked them for having been abandoned by the West. "As you know they [the Kurds] preferred other protectors [than Russia]. And now - well, you see what is happening," he said.

Russia stands to gain from the debacle by being left free to turn Syria into its Mediterranean protectorate.

It also stands to gain if there is a new exodus of refugees or Isis militants to Europe, fomenting tension inside its geopolitical adversary.

The startling image of America standing with Russia against the EU at the UNSC comes after three years of fraying transatlantic relations under US president Donald Trump.

It comes after he said, earlier this week, he did not care if Isis fighters went to Europe.

It also comes after he abandoned the EU on an Iran nuclear arms deal, on the two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and on free trade and climate change.

But his latest snub did little to cement European unity.

The UK's ambassador to the UN, Karen Pierce, equivocated the EU position in New York, as Britain sought closer US ties in the context of Brexit.

She called for Turkish "restraint" instead of cessation of hostilities.

"We admire all the efforts Turkey has made in a humanitarian crisis. It has been a heroic effort," she added.

Peter Szijjarto, the foreign minister of Hungary, which has close ties with Russia, said the EU should stop its "competition who can bash the Turkish president more".

"We need a constructive dialogue with Turkey to avoid a situation when an additional migratory flow arrives to Europe," he told the Reuters news agency in Budapest.

Misaligned

Turkey, an EU accession candidate and a Nato member, is also meant to be on Europe's side.

"If Turkey is serious about its ambitions [to join the EU]" then it must "align" itself with EU foreign policy, the European Commission said on Thursday.

It spoke after Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once again, threatened to "open the gates to Europe" for the 3.6m Syrian refugees in Turkey if the EU did not curtail criticism.

Turkey says Kurdish forces in Syria pose a security threat due to their links with Kurdish separatists in Turkey.

The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, also accused France, a former colonial power in the region, of wanting to partition Syria.

For its part, the UN refugee agency warned that "hundreds of thousands of civilians in northern Syria are now in harm's way".

A coalition of 14 aid NGOs said 450,000 people were "at risk".

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