The Middle East continues to be an area of strong geopolitical instability. The resolution of the conflict in Syria, in particular, has become the pivot for the stabilization of the entire region and for the establishment of a new balance between regional and global powers. In fact, broadly speaking, Iran, Russia and Hezbollah militia intervened in the Syrian conflict on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad's regime; instead the United States, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf monarchies, Turkey, France and the United Kingdom supported the opposition forces. Meanwhile, jihadists from all over the world have come to Syria to fight as part of the Islamic State militia. Indeed, the Syrian civil war has become a proxy war where, precisely, regional and global powers challenge and confront, sometimes arriving at odd situations. Despite the fragile truce negotiated by Russia, Turkey and Iran, the solution to the Syrian conflict is still far behind. The divergence of the interests and objectives of factions on the field and their regional and international sponsors complicates the resolution of the crisis and thickens shadows over the prospect of rebuilding a unified country. The European Union (EU), on the other hand, has so far not played a significant role in the conflict in Syria, worrying only about managing the flow of refugees to Europe, but beginning to conceive a post-war reconstruction phase.
The most obvious example of the Syrian paradox is the battle between Sunni and Shiite forces of Islam. The Assad regime is backed by Shiite-dominated States, particularly Iran and Iraq. Anti-Assad forces are supported by the Sunni States: Saudi Arabia, the Gulf monarchies and Turkey. However, the Government of Saudi Arabia is clearly threatened by some of the same groups of Islamic militants who it encouraged and supported in Syria. Russia, in turn, is likely to inflate the Muslim populations living within its borders and risks being dragged into another war because of the delicate situation in Ukraine. This clash between regional powers overlaps the clash between Russia and the US, with the first next to Assad and the others who continue to claim his removal, even after the rise of Donald Trump who instead strongly criticized Barack Obama’s policy towards Syria and the Middle East. The disagreement between Russia and the US partly regards their influence in the Middle East, but it also has wider geopolitical and ideological implications. Russia and the Western countries have already engaged in a proxy war on the future of Ukraine. Despite these risks, foreign powers remain involved in the conflict because they fear that their security and they status would weaken if they allow other nations or religious groups to take the initiative and, of course, to ensure the supply of oil resources. In this context, a myriad of local militias proliferated, sometimes allied against the common enemy but in conflict with each other, making it even more complicated to identify credible negotiating parties, agree cease fire and negotiate peace.
Moreover, when it comes to the Middle East, it is necessary to think at the so-called Greater Middle East, referring to an area that goes from the Maghreb countries to Iraq and Iran, up to Afghanistan. The main uncertainty lies on the future of Iraq, where the combats for the imminent fall of Mosul shows the political fragmentation of the country according to ethno-sectarian division lines, germs of new conflicts. It is enough to look at the tensions which marked the fight for the Syrian city of Aleppo, or the tensions around the conquest of the Iraqi city of Mosul, to understand the complexity of the situation and the relations between the various actors. Here, the Baghdad government has massed troops of the regular army and the largely Shiite popular mobilization militias. By echoing the Gulf monarchies, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan had threatened retaliation if the city had been occupied by Shiite and not Sunni troops, and had mobilized the Turkish army to the border with Iraq and some Sunni Iraqi militia supported by Ankara. The unstable government of Baghdad had rejected the accusations and, on the contrary, had asked for the withdrawal of some Turkish contingents in northern Iraq, officially there to defend the Turkish communities. In addition, the latter are divided between the support to or the fight against the Islamic State. Furthermore, among the pro-Western countries of the Middle East, for years, Saudi leaders have used with the Iranian rivals the same terminology they used in the past against the Soviet Union and the communist or socialist forces in the Arab world: snakes whose heads have to be cut as the only solution.
Another way to understand how the Syrian conflict is a proxy war it is possible to refer to the interview issued by Bashar al-Assad to the Russian newspaper "Komsomolskaya Pravda" on October 14, 2016, in which he referred to the return of the Cold War between the US and Russia, of which Syria would be one of the battlefields. In the same interview, Assad confirmed that Russia, together with Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, were the closest allies of Damascus. Indeed, Iran is interested in supporting Assad regime in order to secure a link to Lebanon and, therefore, to Israel, with Hezbollah.
Unfortunately, after the chemical attacks allegedly undertaken by the Damascus regime in early April, the Syrian conflict has found new uncertainty and its solution depends on the negotiations but also on the battlefield scenario. Actually, external powers have intensified their efforts on the battlefield, hoping for a victory for their part, or to secure a stronger position in view of the peace talks. What is certain is that, as stated by United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, «everyone is losing in Syria. The solution must be political».
The same EU strategy on Syria has been updated several times, according to the changing geopolitical scenario and the situation on the battlefield. If the EU has failed to play a tangible political and diplomatic role in the Syrian crisis, it has tried to engage in humanitarian action to protect the civilian population. In fact, the EU is among the most important donors in the international response to the Syrian crisis, with over € 9.4 billion jointly disbursed by the EU from Member States, from 2011, to Syria and neighboring countries hosting Syrian refugees (Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey), in the form of humanitarian assistance, development assistance, economic assistance and assistance to stabilization.
Moreover, since the EU is not directly involved in military operations, it could play a significant role in the pacification and in the reconstruction of Syria. For this reason, on October 17, 2016, Federica Mogherini presented to the EU Foreign Ministers a "EU Regional Initiative on the Future of Syria", which foresees the involvement of the main regional actors involved in the conflict in order to find an agreement on the post-war phase, following three guidelines: reconstruction, reconciliation and governance. Then, on April 4 and 5, 2017, in Brussels, 70 countries, international organizations and civil society organizations participated in the conference "Support the future of Syria and the region". However, the arrangements for implementing the EU guidelines and for the deployment of aid assistance will depend on the order that Syria will assume at the end of the conflict and on the donors willing to invest. In fact, the two main allies of Assad, Russia and Iran, are not experiencing a good economic situation due to low oil prices, international sanctions and internal problems. Furthermore, Iran also seems willing to ask Assad a fair compensation for its efforts to maintain him on power. Nonetheless, if Assad remains in power it is unlikely that Gulf monarchies, which have so far funded the rebel groups, commit themselves to rebuilding the country. Other major donors to be excluded would be the United States, which have taken a new isolationist attitude, and China, which usually wants to make a net return on its investments. Therefore, it seems that the EU remains the only actor which could be active in rebuilding Syria, which is a risk but also an opportunity to contribute to a new configuration of the country and thus facilitate the outflow of refugees hosted in various EU member States.