First Arab-EU summit billed as chance to cooperate in troubled region

The Arab League Headquarters, where the 4th EU-League of Arab States Ministerial meeting between Arab and European foreign ministers, will be held. (REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh/File Photo)
Updated 22 February 2019
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First Arab-EU summit billed as chance to cooperate in troubled region

  • President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi will host the two-day summit in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh
  • EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini says the gathering is about much more than migration
CAIRO: European and Arab leaders are to hold their first summit Sunday, in what the top EU diplomat sees as a chance to boost cooperation across a troubled Mediterranean region.
President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi will host the two-day summit in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to discuss topics like security, trade, development and migration.
Wars and conflicts in places such as Syria and Libya are on the agenda at a summit guarded by the security forces who are fighting a bloody jihadist insurgency a short distance to the north.
But analysts voiced doubts over how much progress can be made, with Europe split over migration and Arab countries still grappling with the fallout from Arab Spring revolutions.
European leaders first mentioned the summit in Austria in September amid efforts to agree ways to curb the illegal migration that has sharply divided the 28-nation bloc.
But checking migration is only part of Europe’s broader strategy to forge a new alliance with its southern neighbors.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini insists that the gathering in Egypt of more than 40 heads of state and government is about much more than migration.
“We will have frank, open discussions, not only on migration, definitely not,” Mogherini told journalists in Brussels on Monday.
“We will have first of all discussions on our economic cooperation, on our common region,” she said.
“That is a troubled region but also full of opportunities.”
Attending will be Donald Tusk, president of the European Council of EU member countries, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm.
EU officials said 25 European heads of state and government will attend.
These include German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Theresa May and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who could also discuss the stalemate over Brexit on the sidelines.
Apart from El-Sisi, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri will attend from the 22-member Arab League, which is based in Cairo. It is not yet clear who else will be present.
A UN official warned that Europe’s failure to bridge divisions on migration “risks blocking all the other discussions” at the summit.
“How do you discuss an issue if you can’t even mention it!” the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
He said EU countries like Hungary refuse to mention migration because they oppose asylum seekers and migrants, particularly from Muslim countries.
The EU has struck aid-for-cooperation agreements with Turkey and Libya’s UN-backed government in Tripoli, which has sharply cut the flow of migrants since a 2015 peak.
But the official said broader cooperation with the Arab League, which includes Libya, is limited without the EU being able to speak in one voice.
Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Tunisia and Libya, said the summit will struggle “to establish a dialogue between two sides who are confronted with their own challenges.”
The meeting comes as “the Arab countries are still feeling the effects of the revolutions started in 2011,” Pierini told AFP.
“Arab League unity is in trouble,” said Pierini, now an analyst with the Carnegie Europe think tank.
With expectations low for EU-Arab progress, the focus may shift to EU efforts to break the logjam over Britain’s looming exit from the bloc on March 29.
Britain’s Philip Hammond said May would have an “opportunity” in Egypt to discuss Brexit with her EU counterparts who have balked at her requests for concessions to sell the divorce to her parliament.
But officials in Brussels and London have played down the prospect of a Brexit “deal in the desert” to try to ensure an orderly departure.


Syria Kurd autonomy under threat after Daesh 'caliphate' falls

Updated 27 min 4 sec ago
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Syria Kurd autonomy under threat after Daesh 'caliphate' falls

  • The Kurdish forces helped in the fight against Daesh
  • The Kurds in the area are demanding for an international observer force

BEIRUT: Now the Daesh group's "caliphate" has fallen, the hard-won limited autonomy of Syria's Kurds will be left in peril if their key US ally goes ahead with its announced pullout.
On Saturday, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces announced the end of the proto-state that the Sunni Arab extremist group declared across large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014.
The Kurds have largely stayed out of Syria's eight-year civil war, instead building their own institutions in a third of the country under their control.
But a planned US military pullout has left them exposed to an attack by Turkey and in need of protection from Damascus, in a massive blow to their dreams of self-rule.
"The Kurds have been caught between a Syrian rock and a Turkish hard place," Syria expert Fabrice Balanche said.
Kurdish fighters have spearheaded the fight against Daesh since late 2014, but neighboring Turkey views them as "terrorists".
The presence of American troops in areas held by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had acted as a shield against any Turkish offensive.
But US President Donald Trump in December shocked Washington's allies by announcing a full withdrawal of all 2,000 US troops from Syria as Daesh had been "beaten".
"The Kurds are facing an uncertain future. The most urgent threat appears to be from Turkey," analyst Mutlu Civiroglu said.
After his announcement, Trump attempted to ease tensions by speaking of a 30-kilometre "safe zone" on the Syrian side of the border.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said his country would establish the "security zone" itself if it took too long to implement.
The Kurds have rejected any Turkish implementation, especially since any such buffer would include their major cities.
They are demanding instead the deployment of an international observer force.
"Kobane, Tal Abyad, Darbasiya, Qamishli, Dehik, Derbassiye -- most of the Kurdish cities are on the border line," Civiroglu said.
Turkey and its Syrian rebel proxies have led two previous offensives inside Syria, most recently seizing the northwestern enclave of Afrin from the Kurds last year.
Syria's civil war has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.
It has since spiraled into a complex conflict, with rebel backer Turkey and regime ally Russia emerging as key powerbrokers.
Beyond American approval, Civiroglu said Turkey would likely need a green light from Russia before any Turkish offensive in Syria.
"Russia's position is going to be very important, because Russia has a strong power over Turkey," he said.
President Bashar al-Assad's regime now controls two-thirds of Syria thanks to Russian military backing since 2015, and its seems determined to also return to oil-rich northeastern Syria.
To protect themselves, the Kurds have dispatched delegations to Washington and Moscow.
And in ongoing talks, they have scrambled to mend ties with Damascus.
After decades of marginalization, the Kurds have developed their own political system in northeast Syria -- holding elections, collecting taxes and running schools teaching the Kurdish language.
"In a war-torn country, the Kurdish system is working fine," Civiroglu said.
"The Kurds want this to be recognized."
They want "Kurdish education to be offered officially", he said, after decades of an effective ban on their mother tongue.
But talks so far have failed to bear fruit, and Balanche warns the Kurds are in a weak position.
"The regime is demanding an unconditional surrender. Damascus does not want to let them retain any autonomy," he said.
Syrian Defense Minister Ali Abdullah Ayoub said Monday that the government would recapture all areas held by the SDF "in one of two ways: a reconciliation agreement or... by force".
Although the end of the Daesh "caliphate" has been declared, Daesh is still present in eastern Syria's vast Badia desert.
The US Defense Department has warned that without sustained pressure on the extremists, they could resurge in Syria within months.
In the end, the future of the Kurds mainly depends on the United States, says analyst Nicholas Heras of the Center for a New American Security.
"Every other actor in Syria cannot make a move until there is greater clarity on what the United States ultimately decides to do," he said.
And after any troop pullout, the United States could still stay on with a paramilitary force, he added.
"The best hope for the SDF is for the Americans and the coalition to stick it out in Syria for the long haul."
The White House has said that around 200 American "peace-keeping" soldiers would remain in northern Syria indefinitely.
Acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan said he would be discussing with NATO partners the potential to establish an "observer force" in the area.