The absence of a viable post-war policy for Afghanistan and Syria under the Trump administration opens the window for the EU to play a stabilizing role in the region by supporting a UN-led peace process.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to the collapse of international cooperation, which in turn is pushing the attempts to end the wars in Afghanistan and Syria into the background. However, the European Union could play a pivotal role in supporting a UN-led peace process in both countries.
In Afghanistan, the February 2020 peace deal between the United States and the Taliban was a remarkable event meant to end 19 years of war. A UN Security Council Resolution in March said the deal presented “significant steps toward ending the war” and offered “sustained support” to achieve peace. However, the proposed peace process does not hold the Taliban accountable, and risks the legitimacy of the government of Afghanistan. In Syria, Russia’s diplomatic and military gains stand on bilateral relations with Damascus, lacking appropriate American and EU cooperation.
A threat-based security narrative during the Obama administration failed to separate legitimate threats from the constructive roles Russia and China could play in ending the conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria. The Trump administration has experienced growing tensions with both China and Russia as well as fracturing relations with the EU, which has further undermined the development of a global approach toward ending these deadly conflicts.
The War in Afghanistan
For the US and NATO, the war in Afghanistan originated as a military response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001. For the Afghans and the region at large, the root cause of the conflict was Moscow’s and Washington’s regime-change approach during the Cold War, resulting in the collapse of the Afghan state, the rise of the Taliban, and the establishment of al-Qaeda.
Regime change as an ideological principle in US foreign policy during the 1980s prevented Washington from supporting the formation of a national unity government in Afghanistan. During the Carter, Reagan and Bush administrations, the investment in war overwhelmed any possibilities for conflict resolution. Washington justified its support for Pakistan-led Afghan rebel groups with its policy of bringing about regime change in Kabul, even after Mikhail Gorbachev ordered the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the US signed the 1988 Geneva Accord. This action prolonged the war and produced militant leaders including Mullah Omar, Osama bin Laden, Ibn al-Khateb, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and Abubaker al Baghdadi. Had the US response to Gorbachev’s actions been different, it might have prevented the collapse of the state, improved regional stability, and spared itself 19 years of war.
Now, Washington and Brussels are looking for a quick end to the prolonged and costly intervention, but entangled regional concerns, particularly from Pakistan, halt progress. In addition, the current US peace deal with the Taliban is limited and contradicts Washington’s Joint Declaration with the Afghan government. A UN-led program within a cooperative regional mechanism could clarify the way forward.
The War in Syria
The US and EU’s lack of a viable political strategy toward Syria was evident from the start of the political unrest. For the US, the objective of Operation “Timber Sycamore” (from approximately 2012) was clear: regime change in Syria by forcing Bashar al-Assad from power. Like in 1980s Afghanistan, the injection of financial and military resources via Timber Sycamore soon caused a growing Islamization of the anti-government resistance forces. Washington’s lack of political strategy dragged regional actors such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel deeper into the conflict, opening political and military spaces for Iranian and Russian influence. By mid-2015, Moscow ordered the deployment of troops to avert a US-backed regime change. The preservation of the al-Assad regime was integrated into Russia’s stabilization program, regardless of the brutalities it committed against the Syrian people.
The presence of the US-led military coalition against ISIS alongside the Russian military offered both countries the opportunity to transform a tactical military collaboration into diplomatic cooperation toward ending the conflict. Yet instead, the US insisted on the removal of the al-Assad regime as a prerequisite toward ending the war, further extending the conflict.
Meanwhile, with US assistance, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) became a formidable popular force that drove out the ISIS fighters from strategic areas and brought a physical end of the Islamic State in Syria in October 2017. By December, the SDF controlled around 30 percent of the Syrian territory, including important oil fields and a large population. The success of the SDF offered Washington the needed leverage to press Moscow into supporting the Transition Plan for Syria, which was originally sponsored by the UN in October 2015 and supported by 17 nations, including Russia and Iran. Instead, on January 13, 2018, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced the US intention to transfer 30,000 Kurdish-led SDF fighters into border forces in northern Syria. Two days later, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan condemned the US move. This unintended Turkish response forced the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to immediately reverse that decision. Ankara capitalized on American backtracking, portraying it as US willingness to throw the Kurdish forces under the bus.
The sudden withdrawal of US forces in October 2019 opened the door once again to the Turkish military and its allied Islamist militant fighters to attack Kurdish forces in the northeastern region of Syria. This chaotic situation forced the SDF to reach out to Russia and the al-Assad government to protect the border towns. The Syrian and Russian military forces entered key towns ahead of the Turkish military. Turkey reached an agreement with Russia to force the SDF to withdraw from a 120-kilometer-long border region. As a result, the US lost the narrative of regime change, and caused escalating regional hostility that opened cleavages for a reemerging ISIS, and continued Russian and Iranian military presence in Syria.
Throughout the Syrian conflict, Washington, Brussels, and Moscow have all neglected the regional ties and interests. Deconstructing these regional interests requires collective regional cooperation so as to allow pragmatic forces to reconstruct a narrative that fits within a new regional order.
Why Rejuvenate a UN Role?
US peace efforts in Afghanistan and the Russians’ gains in Syria reveal the limits of bilateral approaches toward ending deadly conflicts. In contrast, a UN-led diplomatic framework—with reference to the 1988 Geneva Accord and the 2015 Vienna Peace Talks—could ensure the success of the US-Taliban peace deal and allow the Syrian people a dignified and just peace, while recognizing the shared strategic interests of relevant member states. Now China, with its $23-billion-commitment to the Arab region and hundreds of billions of dollars to Southwest and Central Asia, and its recently expressed strong support for the US-Taliban peace deal, could incentivize stability in both regions. The EU’s commitment to the UN global role and multilateralism is also advantageous for peace, but the absence of active EU-led regional cooperation and fractious relationships between the US, the EU, Russia, and China is the grim reality, which has global consequences.
Given this reality, a UN-led diplomatic effort to capitalize on the peace deal with the Taliban and stabilize efforts in Syria is would be welcome. With a growing level of collaboration among Security Council members, a constructive UN role should allow for comprehensive conflict transformation in Afghanistan and Syria and reignite post-COVID-19 multilateral cooperation.
EU support for a UN-led framework could draw on established relationships with Russia, China, and the US. The EU has ample opportunity to spearhead the construction of this framework; it has been central to the UN-led peace mediations in the Levant and Middle East and the UN mission in Afghanistan. A strong sentiment regarding not leaving the Middle East to “the global power far from [the] region,” expressed last year by the then President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, adds some important energy toward effective peace-building.
EU-supported, UN-led mediation efforts in Afghanistan and Syria should receive bipartisan support from the US Congress, which should encourage the Trump administration to support the efforts as well. A multilateral approach toward key critical regional and global issues would also allow the EU to redefine its leadership role within a global order that will emerge once the COVID-19 pandemic begins to wane.
The Way Forward
Afghanistan and Syria have both emerged as epicenters for terrorism, threatening regional stability with global consequences; therefore, ending hostility is far beyond the ability of the governments in power. To start, two key challenges must be addressed:
Overcoming Deep Mistrust: The lack of trust between the warring factions, regional stakeholders, and the countries’ populations demands an effective impartial mediating body, such as a UN-led mediation effort. In Afghanistan, the US peace deal with the Taliban suffers from significant credibility gaps but can still be seen as a positive step forward to be incorporated into a regionally oriented, UN-led mediation program. Unlike with the 1988 Geneva Accord, this time the Taliban is party to the negotiation and a signatory to its implementation. The biggest hurdle in the process is an agreement between the Afghan and Pakistani governments to honor the peace deal. This can happen only if Islamabad sees a peaceful Afghanistan as a geo-economic gain in terms of its relations with China and Central Asia rather than as the instrument of hostility against India.
In Syria, there have been extended mediation efforts by the UN, the Arab League, and inter-state programs including the Astana Process, yet these have so far failed to end the war. Like Afghanistan, the Syrian conflict also has complex regional and international characteristics that means it is beyond the ability of the al-Assad government or any armed opposition groups to end it. The key strategic issue preventing any mediation from succeeding up to now is the question of how the war in Syria should end, something that has allowed Syria’s neighbors to support armed political oppositions on the basis of their assumed self-interest. As a result, a new regional trust-building mechanism is needed; a UN-led mediation program would serve as the only impartial, but effective arbiter if it is genuinely backed and resourced by the UN Security Council.
Achieving Regional Integration: The absence of a viable post-war policy for Afghanistan and Syria under the Trump administration opens the window for the EU to play a regionally oriented stabilizing role. To achieve this, the EU should task its Commission for Transatlantic Legislators Dialogue with gaining the needed support from the US Congress for a UN-led Transition Plan in Syria and an inclusive partnership in the Afghan peace process. A UN-led 7+1 (the US, China, Russia, the EU, Pakistan, India, Iran plus Afghanistan) cooperative platform could utilize the current international commitment to regional peacemaking and peace-building. Strong support exists for a US/EU strategic partnership among American legislators, as seen in the January 2019 celebration of the re-launch of the bipartisan Congressional European Union Caucus, co-chaired by Congressmen Gregory Meeks, a Democrat representing New York, and Joe Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina.
What makes the EU role more relevant is the geographical proximity, and the need for preventing new waves of migrants and thousands of battle-hardened Islamist militants from making their way to Europe. The EU Delegate to Afghanistan has been active in supporting the peace process; in July 2019, Germany and Qatar co-organized the Intra-Afghan Peace Conference in Doha. Later that year, the EU Special Envoy to Afghanistan offered a broader spectrum in support of a peace plan, strengthening democratic results gained over the last 19 years. The presence of the Russian military in Syria and Central Asia and Chinese influence in both regions are real. A proactive EU role can de-militarize the political and diplomatic spaces and end regime change as an instrument of foreign policy.
A pro-active EU role has already highlighted humanitarian and economic development programs possible in both Afghanistan and Syria. Active cooperation with Russia and China would enable Afghanistan to advance regional integration via economic development, trade and commerce, and Syrians to reconstruct their war-torn country and achieve a fair and just departure from war. This would then encourage millions of refugees from Europe and beyond to repatriate to their homes and rebuild their lives. A global role for the EU as the defender of liberal democracy should uplift the ability of an emerging multi-polar world order to de-militarize international relations, and could produce a blueprint for 21st-century conflict reduction via regional cooperation. The post-COVID-19 pandemic world demands multinational recovery programs for demilitarizing international relations, boosting regional economic integration, and ending deadly conflicts.