Tensions have risen in the Middle East over the past two weeks as the United States and Russia have emerged with different ideas on solving the problems in Syria. But there is another heavyweight in this fight — a player with separate entanglements with both Russia and the United States and which could become influential in the region, though its primary concerns currently rest closer to home. That player is Europe.
On Friday, the leaders of Europe's two central powers, France and Germany, will take part in the latest set of "Normandy 4" talks with Ukraine and Russia in Paris. This round has the potential to be different from the previous Normandy 4 meetings. Prior to the U.S.-Russia competition in Syria, Europe had sought a chance to begin de-escalating its tensions with Russia. Europe has always had factions that have sought more peaceful policies toward Russia, and Moscow's recent accommodative actions in Ukraine have lent more power to these voices. The cease-fire in Ukraine is holding (relative to previous stages in the conflict), and some heavy equipment has been moved behind Russia's borders. Moreover, pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine have proposed postponing local elections. It would be a major gain for Kiev if the separatist territories can hold their elections in accordance with Ukrainian law.
Of course, Russia and Europe are not close to resolving their differences regarding Ukraine. Rather, the conflict has entered a phase in which the idea that the European Union could relax its sanctions at the beginning of next year is not so outlandish. In this, the European Union's voting mechanism puts the odds somewhat in Russia's favor. Unanimity is required for a major decision to be made, and with the sanctions set to expire Jan. 31 unless the decision is made to extend them, Europe's dovish factions could well triumph over their hawkish counterparts.
However, this potential de-escalation has been thrown into disarray by Russian airstrikes and Moscow's military buildup in Syria. If the United States and Russia are now at cross purposes in Syria, it becomes politically difficult for the European Union to relax its sanctions, since it would run the risk of drawing a clear line between the European Union and the United States and their separate Russia policies — a development that would, incidentally, be an unexpected benefit for Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the Europeans' position is even more complicated than that, since they also have their own thoughts on how the Syria situation needs to play out.
Most European countries have been relatively silent since the start of the Russian air campaigns, partly because of the fraught nature of the situation with the United States and also possibly because different states have differing views on the subject and are aware that vocalizing their differences might undermine the whole. However, more statements on the issue have emerged lately. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called on Russia to back up its words on targeting the Islamic State, though he has since asked Russia for clarity on its actions. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi argued that Western leaders should accept Russia's role in Syria. British Prime Minister David Cameron hinted that there could be a role for Syrian President Bashar al Assad in a transitional government in Syria (this is essentially Russia's position). With all these statements flying around, it is notable that French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have made it clear that Syria will be one of the topics under discussion at the Normandy 4 summit.
The United States has said it opposes the Europeans' getting involved in the intervention in Syria or even talking about Syria with Russia. Washington fears that Europe could end up supporting Russian interventions in the region and thus undermining U.S. efforts. However, the Europeans are an inherent part of this unfolding story. Europe has been cornered into forming an opinion on the subject by the torrent of refugees that has come its way, particularly during the past few months. The crisis has raised issues in the European Union about how to divide up the newcomers across a continent that is generally anti-immigration, and there is a general feeling that it would be better to address the source of the problem rather than cope with its effects.
Russia is presenting itself as capable of "solving" Syria, and this is an enticing idea to European minds, even if it does turn out to be a hollow claim. In fact, a similar scenario arose in 2013, when Russia offered counter-solutions to U.S. plans to end the Syrian chemical weapons crisis. At the time, many European countries supported the Russian plans, causing tension with the United States. As much as Washington may try to prevent it, U.S.-Russia relations always affect EU-Russia relations. This interconnectedness could be playing right into Moscow's hands.
Russia has many motives for its operations in Syria. It wants to show the world it is still an international player, and talking about the future of Syria with France and Germany while the United States grinds its teeth is a pretty international position to be in. Moscow also wants to maintain a foothold in the Middle East. Syria was an important ally during the Cold War, and the location of one of the Soviet Union's few warm-water ports, but after the Soviet collapse, Russia lost much of its influence; this is the first time Russian troops have been ordered into combat outside former Soviet territory since 1989. Russia is also seeking new ways to gain power over things the United States cares about in order to possibly gain some ground on the issues of sanctions and Ukraine.
On Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the United States is unlinking talks about Syria from those about Ukraine. It was a slap in the face to the Russians, but the Europeans apparently have not read the U.S. script and are still loosely tying the issues together. This warrants some important questions about how this three-way tussle is likely to pan out. The United States appears to have failed in its attempts to keep the Europeans from getting involved in the Syrian situation, meaning that what the European Union thinks on the subject now matters. Will Europe be tempted to follow the Russian lead in the region, buoyed by a hope of a swift resolution that would aid attempts to cope with the migrant crisis, though potentially risking alienating the United States in the process? And more broadly, if this did happen, might it lead to de-escalation in the EU-Russia confrontation over Ukraine, leading to the removal of sanctions?
Another result is more likely: Europe will try to bring Russia and the United States together to resolve the Syrian situation in tandem. It looks like the Ukraine and Syria crises will be inexorably linked with broader negotiations, just as Russia had planned, whether the United States is ready to admit it or not.