Europe tries to bridge gap as US, Russia maneuver on Syria

By NICOLE GAOUETTE, MARGARET TALEV AND SANGWON YOON | Bloomberg | Published: September 29, 2015

With Russia and the United States sparring over how to fight Islamic State and end Syria's bloody civil war, European nations besieged by refugees are trying to bridge the gap.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters on Tuesday his nation was proposing a no-fly zone – an action the U.S. opposes – that would offer protection to Syrians so they wouldn't have to flee to Europe. Meanwhile, the European Union's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini suggested the diplomatic deadlock on Syria could be broken if the international community adopts the format used to reach agreement on Iran's nuclear program.

The jockeying came as nations gathered at the United Nations emphasized one thing they easily agree on: the global danger posed by extremists. Islamic State's reach beyond the large areas it controls in Iraq and Syria is reflected in financial sanctions the United States and Security Council announced on Tuesday targeting members of the militant group from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the Britain Pakistan and elsewhere.

"This is not a conventional battle, this is a long-term campaign," President Barack Obama said at a UN-sponsored summit on countering extremism. He said the United States is prepared to work with all countries, including Assad's backers, Russia and Iran, "to find a political mechanism in which it is possible to find a transition process."

The profound change rocking the Middle East and now buffeting Europe can't be dealt with by military means alone, Obama said. "Ideologies are not defeated with guns," he said, but with "better ideas," a possible reference to Russia's build- up of fighter jets, attack helicopters and troops in Syria as well as its creation of a military center in Baghdad to share intelligence with Iran, Iraq and Syria.

The conflict has killed at least 250,000 people in Syria alone and displaced millions more. Obama, in an address to the UN General Assembly on Monday, said the United States, Russia and European countries must take a realistic approach, which he said means compromises, to establish a coordinated fight against Islamic State and also a "managed transition" away from Assad.

While the United States and Russia agree that resolving Syria's conflict requires a political settlement, the principal difference is how Assad fits in, according to an administration official who briefed reporters on a 90-minute meeting between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday. U.S. officials stressed their view that Assad is a cause of the conflict and that his presence and brutality draws extremists.

Putin, who shows no sign of backing down from support of Russia's long-time ally, is emphasizing the fight against Islamic State and said Western policies created a power vacuum in the Middle East. Obama's position is that a political solution must proceed along a parallel track because the civil war provides Islamic State room to operate. Any attempt by Russia to aid Assad in the war is bound to backfire, the U.S. official said.

Still, that may leave room for negotiations on a timeline and method for Assad's departure.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that it's "hard to say" how long Assad might remain in power. He repeated the U.S. stance that as long as there's no functioning government in Syria, Islamic State will be able to capitalize on the chaos. Putin's "acknowledgment that a political transition is necessary" was progress, he said.

Russia will try to force the U.S. hand on Sept. 30, when it submits a resolution to the UN Security Council to coordinate all forces fighting Islamic State, including those of Iran and Assad. It is "a major mistake" to refuse to cooperate with Assad's forces in combating the terrorist group, Putin told world leaders on Monday. Later that day, the Russian leader told reporters the only troops actually fighting the Islamic State belong to either the Syrian regime or to the Kurds.

The prospect of an accord on Syria had been dangled heading into this week's UN gathering, as leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron signaled more flexibility in their stance toward Assad, who they have previously said must step aside.

Some of those countries now seem to be edging back into Obama's camp. Cameron told CBS News on Tuesday that the only way to build a secure Syria is to "eradicate" Assad and Islamic State, adding that "it wouldn't work" to keep Assad in power given how destructive he's been.

While French diplomats had signaled their country might be willing to consider a political transition that includes Assad, Syrian opposition members told reporters today that France shares their view that Assad has no role, even temporarily, in a political settlement. Fabius on Tuesday declined to answer questions about the issue.

Richard Gowan, a fellow with New York University's Center on International Cooperation, said that the U.S.-Russia tensions are "clearly a setback for the Germans, who were trying to foster a more cooperative spirit." He said Europeans aren't united on the issue either, with Hollande's comments on Assad generally looking closer to Obama's.

In one attempt to produce action, Fabius said that technical discussions are under way to create a no-fly zone that would give Syrians protection from barrel bombs the Assad regime has unleashed on civilians.

"We need to create an area, a zone in the north or in the south that is protected, where the population can live in security and therefore would not need to go to other countries," Fabius told reporters in New York on Tuesday. "There are many technical discussions on how we will call this zone – a safe zone, a no-fly zone," he said. A no-fly zone, which had been sought by some members of the Syrian opposition, "has nothing to do with ISIL" and discussions "are still going on," he said.

Earnest said the United States hasn't changed its opposition to imposing a no-fly zone over Syria. "At this point it isn't something we're considering," he said.

The administration hasn't seen a full proposal from the EU on a structure for negotiating a political settlement, he said, but would welcome an attempt to facilitate talks on a transition from Assad.


With assistance from Kambiz Foroohar and Flavia Krause-Jackson in New York and Angela Greiling Keane in Washington.

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