EU incurs Russian wrath at Syria’s cost

Events in Cyprus mean that Russia will only become more obstinate in its dealings with EU member states. This may be bad news for Syria

Putin's wrath is not to be taken lightly, but neither are 70,000 Syrian deaths
George Robinson
On 19 March 2013 19:09

With the EU imposing an unprecedented haircut on deposit holders in Cyprus, Europe has stopped looking to influence the world beyond its borders and has once again focused on its most pressing concern – itself.

This is great shame; every self-imposed fiasco of the EU moves the international spotlight away from where it is most needed and onto that where it is most indulgent. Given the ongoing civil war in Syria, this is even more unforgivable. Over 70,000 people have now been killed in the conflict, with no end in sight.

This is mainly down to the bankrupt Assad regime being kept alive by the generosity of two states: Russia and Iran. When you take into account the deteriorating state of the Iranian economy and its relative lack of clout on an international scale, this leaves Russia as the one major impediment to change in the area.

Russia’s continued provision of arms and supplies to the Syrian Government not only propagates Assad, it also makes a mockery of the EU arms embargo, which is now only serving to penalise the rebels.

Unfortunately, events in Cyprus mean that Russia will only become more obstinate in its dealings with EU member states and NATO. Putin has made it clear that he is furious with the decision to ‘tax’ deposit holders throughout the country, calling it “unfair, unprofessional and dangerous”, and Moscow has already threatened to withdraw a €2.5 billion loan to the island.

While oligarchs losing their laundered wealth will attract little sympathy in the wider context of what has happened (and further discussions on the demerits of the Cyprus bailout are available here and here), taking their money will do little to thaw relations with the one country that could unilaterally facilitate movement in this area.

Putin has also shown he can be enormously capricious when he feels that he has been slighted. One of the more bitter examples has seen him blocking all American couples from adopting Russian children as a riposte to the US’s Magnitsky Act.

On top of this, Putin has declared strategic motives for keeping Assad in situ; Russian officials have stated that they do not want the West to continue its perceived habit of taking bad situations and making them even worse.

This would be a reasonable assertion in a different context, but not in one where there has been an ongoing civil war for two years. Quite simply, the situation cannot get any worse.

Taking this into account, it would appear that the time for drawn-out negotiations has passed, with Russia now even less willing to engage in talks at a bilateral or supranational level than it was before. An external shock is needed to bring this conflict to a close.

So what options are left on the table? It seems that the most feasible must be to end the EU arms embargo on Syria and start giving weapons directly to the rebels. Thankfully, the UK and France, in a partnership which has already forced out one dictator in Colonel Gaddafi, have indicated their support for such a measure and a window of opportunity will open in May, when the embargo comes up for review.

Such a move should be welcomed; it is high time that member states showed how European co-operation can work, and start providing assistance to the Syrian rebels as soon as possible. To do otherwise would only mean tens of thousands more deaths. Against this, Putin’s wrath fades into insignificance.

George Robinson is a parliamentary researcher for the Conservative Party

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