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Confluence of Crises: The View From Munich

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 22/02/2016 Nelson W. Cunningham
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Co-authored with Richard Burt
Since 1962, the year after the Berlin Wall was constructed, the annual Munich Security Conference (MSC) has helped propel conversations on many critical issues: the Cold War; nuclear arms control; the fall of that Wall and German reunification; 9-11; the Iraq War. Two years ago, the conference was all about NSA and new strains on US-European cooperation. Last year -- Ukraine and the new Russian aggression.
This year, the focus of the conference was ISIL and the chaotic and murderous civil war in Syria, Russia's new role there, perceived American passivity, and Europe's continued inability to get its act together.
From February 12-14, some 1,000 or so leaders and global citizens gathered under one roof in one hotel in one of Europe's most dynamic regions to grapple with these issues. The atmosphere in the corridors was, as usual, fevered and serious - this is not just an urban, mini-Davos, but rather a forum focused solely on essential security questions whose interloping dynamics will define the years ahead.
With the announcement late last Thursday night of a new plan for cessation of hostilities in Syria, the differences between Russia and the West were on sharp and vivid display. Secretary John Kerry, whose indefatigable energy and optimism have driven the Syrian peace process, declared belief that the bombs would cease in one week - but he was unable to point to significant US response if the effort failed. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sourly walked through all the obstacles to peace while highlighting Russia's central support for Bashar Al-Assad, against whom the West and Sunni Arabs unite. When pressed to place odds on the success of Russia's efforts to defend Assad, Lavrov grimaced and said, "49%." British Foreign Secretary Hammond, to his right, quipped, "I don't speak Russian, but I would have thought from his tone that his prediction would be 0%."
Syria's neighbors differed on their outlook for peace in that country. Saudi Foreign Minister Al-Jabeir derided any progress made with Assad remaining in power, while Iran's Zarif scoffed at any solution that excluded him. Iraq's Prime Minister al Abadi vowed to drive the Islamic State out of the country by year's end. Jordan's King Abdullah, who rules a country where 1 in 5 residents is a Syrian refugee, implored the US and Europe to help bring peace to Syria, and called for Europe to reconcile with Islam. Consensus on a path forward seemed distant.
Putting the Syria conflict in a global and strategic context, Russia's Medvedev warned of a "new Cold War," pitting the West against a Russia whose motives, history, and actions were badly misunderstood. He called on the West to understand Russia's pursuit of peace congenial to its unique historic ("national") interests in Crimea and Ukraine, citing the millions of ethnic Russians and coreligionists living in each region. Foreign Minister Lavrov, plainly worn down and displaying none of the equanimity and balance for which he is known, echoed Medvedev in darker and more bitter terms; the sometime ally and partner of John Kerry seemed pushed past the possibility of real reconciliation. With Lavrov, one has the feeling that he understands the need for diplomatic solutions, but that his boss in the Kremlin won't let him off the leash to pursue them.
At the same time, Ukraine's President Poroshenko feared a confluence of crises that would leave Ukraine exposed: a deal between the West and Russia that would lift Crimea sanctions on Russia, in exchange for Russian acquiescence in a Western solution for Syria. Given the tremendous pressure on European leaders from the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, Poroshenko's fear is perhaps not unwarranted. America remains strongly opposed to any such linkage, but as European leaders consider their domestic audiences, the possibility of mounting European (and Middle Eastern) pressure for linkage is deeply concerning. Meaning: out with Assad, a brokered peace in Syria, curbs on migrants fleeing to the heart of Europe - and a grudging, informal acceptance not only of Crimea's status but of Russia's strength in Ukraine and its near-abroad. While many conference participants called for enhanced "American leadership," few could clearly define what this meant (not, of course, for the first time).
The Munich proceedings emphasized that Europe confronts an historic array of crises: the continuing wave of Middle Eastern immigration, Russian assertiveness, political splits between North-South and East-West European Union members, the threat of Brexit, and the likelihood of another Greek Eurozone crisis. The conspicuous inability of the EU to develop a common approach on refugee policy clearly underscored that the "European project" now confronts its gravest threat.
As the delegates departed on Sunday, they were left to ask themselves: has the relative peace and stability of the post-Cold War era come to an end, and have we now entered a new period of great power conflict and more generalized international anarchy?
Nelson W. Cunningham is President and Co-Founder of McLarty Associates, an international strategic advisory firm in Washington, DC. Ambassador Richard Burt is Managing Director, Europe & Eurasia at McLarty Associates. They just returned from the 52nd Munich Security Conference.

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