RD Interview: Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, explains the EU’s role in the Syria crisis and the complexity of patron–proxy relations in the Syrian war.

Syrians walk past a shop with a painting of the national flag in Damascus, Syria. Photo: AP

Russia Direct sat down with the director of the Middle East Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, Daniel Levy, and discussed the EU’s role in solving the Syrian crisis as well as the peculiarities of patron-proxy relations in the complicated Syrian war.

Russia Direct: What role does the EU play in the Syrian conflict? It seems that so far Europe has sort of a marginal role in solving the Syrian crisis although it suffers from the refugee crisis the most. So should it play a bigger role?

Daniel Levy: One could almost say that the EU’s role in the Syria crisis is in inverse proportion to the role of the Syria crisis in impacting the EU. The Syria crisis has a dramatic effect on the European Union: the spillover of the refugee crisis, mass migration, of course nothing compare to the refugee crisis in surrounding countries, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey. But nonetheless, this is tearing at the very fabric of the European project: the revisiting of borders, the open borders of Schengen, spurring a divisive fight inside the EU.

So, one would think that Europe should be playing a much more prominent role in the crisis. Instead of focusing upstream on the root cause, which is mostly a Syria cause, Europe is focusing on the downstream, which is how do we manage our borders, how do we keep people out, how do we integrate people who come in, how do we play a role with Turkey so that they prevent people from leaving?

Unfortunately, Europe, using a boxing metaphor, is “punching below its weight,” in terms of the diplomatic, political role that it is playing. You have an International Syria Support Group (ISSG), the so-called Vienna process where there are 20 states and institutions around the table, five of those are from Europe, you have the French, British, German, Italian governments, and EU High Representative Federica Mogherini herself, but they are not acting in a unified fashion.

There is a difference in Europe, there is a difference in the analysis of the situation inside Syria, there is a difference in the prescription of what should be the outcome in Syria, and there is a difference in the extent to which Syria is being seen through the paradigm of the renewed European struggle with Russia, where some see Syria as a place to score points against Russia, some see Syria as a crisis that has to be solved including cooperating with Russia.

This has made bringing real European diplomatic heft to the table very difficult and it means that we have a strange situation where this has far less impact on the U.S. From Washington the crisis looks less dramatic, it has much more impact on Europe and yet Europe, as you implied, is a secondary actor.

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I think if Europe did take a more active role, if every week you had a European Foreign Secretary or a European leader, prime minister or chancellor going to Washington, Moscow, Riyadh, Tehran, Ankara, the important capitals, pushing this de-escalation, I think Europe could have an important role to play. And remember, Europe has an added advantage here: unlike the U.S., Europe can shuttle between Riyadh and Tehran.

RD: And what about the Russian role then?

D.L.: In terms of the Russian role, I can’t speak to how much it is driven by the need specifically in Syria, the perceived need to prevent regime change, keep a particular leader and regime in office, how much this is about a broader principle of not having a violent uprising that produces regime change, how much this serves a domestic political need of perhaps distracting attention in some instances. It is a popular move undoubtedly from everything I understand about the way this is been received by Russians, how much this is making a point on the international stage, clearly those factors are at play.

A question the other actors should ask themselves is not so much what the Russian motivation is but what does one do in response? And what is the best response in terms of serving European interests and in terms of serving a broader universal goal of less suffering of the Syrians, the beginnings of a de-escalation in the violence, less Syrian casualties, greater humanitarian access and bringing this terrible conflict to an end.

And I think the answer to that question is that counter-escalation and another counter-escalation and a deepening cycle of violence does not serve those goals. And therefore, one looks at the reality of Russian intervention and presence in Syria and one asks what to do about it and I think the answer is that one sees this as perhaps a moment where Russia has greater leverage because it has taken greater ownership of the outcome of this conflict.

Russia has greater leverage over the leadership in Damascus and one uses that greater leverage to try to drive home de-escalation and cessation of hostilities which is what is being attempted now. And then Russia will face the same challenge that others face, and America, and some Europeans face, which is: Can Russia deliver its ally, can Russia mange its ally?

RD: The Syrian crisis is a multi-layered conflict which has local, regional and global levels and a lot depends on how global players, Russia and the U.S., can deliver and push down the message they agreed on to their proxies to a regional level, and then, down to a local level.  So how do you see these patron-proxy relations within the Syria conflict, and to what extent do they matter?

D.L.:  We don’t add to our understanding if we think too much in terms of patron-proxy relations. Proxy implies a particular actor or agency of its own ability to decide things too much.

And in this respect, Russia may learn in a hard way what the U.S. has learned, which is just because there is a relation of dependence, there isn’t necessarily a relationship of being able to absolutely dictate. And leverage with allies is a very hard thing to calibrate. We’ve seen how (partly this is because of American domestic policies) much, as America has failed to get the Israeli government to do what it wants.

We see this in other relationships in the region with the Gulf States. And the question here is: Can Russia avoid falling into a situation where it starts finding itself being led into places and into doing things that do not serve Russia’s interests by a recalcitrant ally?

And this is why I think this is going to be an important moment in the coming days for Russia to assert itself having done something very significant in terms of strengthening the leadership of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Russia would be asserting itself in making sure that Assad and his government now follow through on what Russia has committed. And I think if, in this moment of test, Russia really does not achieve that, then Russia could have problems. Because then the ally on the ground will further feel that it can buck Russia’s will. So, it is an important moment.

RD: What about the U.S.? The same could happen with regard to Turkey and Saudi-backed rebels. Even now the situation is shakier in relations between the U.S. and Turkey rather than between Russia and the Assad government.

D.L.: Absolutely. And this is where it applies to both sides: the difficulty of managing relationships with allies but the absolute need to do so. And America struggles with how to use its leverage. The U.S. will try to defuse the Kurdish issue by making sure that the Kurdish forces in Syria do not go too far and, therefore, the Turks can pull back. This is why Russia and America have an awful lot at stake.

It’s very difficult to manage. And even if there is a sincerity of commitment, which I believe there is, between the Russian and American leaderships on delivering on what has been agreed, it may not succeed because the local actors may simply buck the will of the external sponsors and may do their own thing.

But then they should know that they will lose the support of the external sponsor. And this is the margins in which we will be maneuvering in the coming days and weeks.

RD: And what do you see as the major obstacle to the current ceasefire to be successful?

D.L.: There is will enough of the local actors be responsive enough in enough parts of Syria and, to put it in blunt terms, will you see a scaling back of Russian, Syrian government and other allies’ military activity at least in significant parts of Syria? In those parts of Syria where there is a scaling back, will it be a reciprocal scaling back of the opposition?

The thorn here, which is an ongoing issue but now it will come to a head, is this question what is a legitimate opposition and what is a terrorist-infected opposition so to speak, and it is an issue of Al-Qaeda.

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And there is an absurdity to the idea that you could have escalation between Russia and America in order for America to defend Al-Qaeda. And that is what the U.S. President does not want to do and I think it is a reasonable position for the U.S. to take with its regional allies and with its allies in Syria to say: If you are in cahoots with Al-Qaeda we are not on your side. And that’s going to be the main challenge.

But that means that Russia also is not depicting opposition groups that have made that decision not to work with Al-Qaeda or who are not directly working with Al-Qaeda as Al-Qaeda or Al-Qaeda-affiliated. Maybe it begins in the South, maybe in other parts of Syria. We need to see some progress, some momentum somewhere, which is the hardest part.