Five questions for Andrea Mennillo: Russia is no longer alone against Isis, but the EU remains concerned with the Ukraine issue

In the wake of the Paris attacks, French President François Hollande appears to be moving closer to working with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has also said, “Against Isis, a broad coalition is needed.” Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron wants raids in Syria and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged to send Tornado fighter jets and 650 soldiers to Mali. Will the European Union and the United States soon change their position towards Russia’s power to unite against Islamic radicals?

Perhaps. We spoke with Andrea Mennillo about this scenario at a November 19 conference in Rome organized by the Institute of High Studies in Geopolitics and Auxiliary Sciences (IsAG). In the lavish setting of Palazzo Montecitorio, amid talks on “War knocking at the Doors” and how to “Limit Conflicts in the Mediterranean”.

1. After the escalation in terrorist attacks in recent weeks, there is a call to unify forces and act as soon as possible against extremism. But how can the indignation be turned into action?

The kamikaze attack against Hezbollah’s stronghold in Beirut, the attack on the Russian-based airliner flying from Sharm el-Sheikh and the attacks in Paris all had the same goal: Spreading terror. But just as the Isis execution of the Jordanian pilot sparked forms of patriotism in the local population, the attacks in Paris are turning the fight against Isis into a national cause. Like Al Qaida, Isis has no any support from the Muslim people living in Europe. The question now is how to turn the indignation aroused by the attacks on Paris into action. A massive land operation by Western forces, such as that conducted in Afghanistan in 2001, seems out of the question, because an international intervention would force us to deal with endless local conflicts. Also, a coordinated offensive by local powers seems unlikely given the differences in their goals. Action would require political agreement between regional actors, starting with Saudi Arabia and Iran, who are always rivals. So, it is a long path, unless Isis suddenly falls under the vanity of its expansionist aspirations or implodes from inner tensions. In any case, Isis is considered to be the worst enemy.

2. After Paris, it seems Putin is no longer the only world leader who wants to fight Isis in Syria. What is happening?

November 13 marked a sort of watershed. Fighting terrorism has become a global fight. What happened in Paris changed the world, not just Europe, and public opinion seems to support the kind of military intervention the Russian president has taken against Isis. President Hollande has already met with Vladimir Putin, who, after the shooting down of a Russian fighter over Turkey, seems even more motivated to hit Isis strongholds. France is engaging with its European partners, and Britain and Germany have responded positively. I think the solution cannot be only military. Above all, it should be political and it should foresee the resignation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. However, decisive actions are needed to limit the actions of the self-proclaimed Islamic state. Cameron himself asked European Members to vote on anti-Isis raids in Syria, while Berlin, with Paris, is ready for a military confrontation.

I am somewhat puzzled about the US military strategy. After the withdrawal from Iraq and from Afghanistan, the US seems to have abdicated its role as the fiercest enemy of terror. Now its position is far more detached: A war from afar, with air strikes. Apparently, Washington does not have the political will to send ground troops. It will only continue with a containment policy, eliminating terrorists with bombs and drones. Unfortunately, my opinion now more than ever is this type of war cannot be won without ground troops.

Having said that, I think that France is perhaps the only power truly committed to annihilating Isis. However pursuing a two-front war, as it is doing in the African region of Sahel (where there is already a large presence of troops and military equipment) and now also in the Middle East, requires important resources.

3. In this particular case, the EU continues to maintain sanctions against Russia, which today is the most determined nation against Isis. Does this not seem to you an ambiguous situation?

The ambiguity of sanctions emerged with force in France, where common sense is prevailing in the improvement of relations with Russia and the loosening of economic tensions. President Putin, for his part, has already ordered his military to coordinate the next steps with French allies. It is difficult for European countries to justify sanctions against Russia, especially at a time when it is the country that is most exposed in fighting violent Islamic extremism. The EU even renewed sanctions until July 2016. I read in the New York Times that the only policy option is the continuation of the sanctions, from three months to a year, without considering their removal. This is a short time to demonstrate to Moscow that Europe will not grant any concessions about Ukraine until the peace plan provided by Minsk agreements is fully respected. This is happening despite attempts to improve agreements after the Paris attacks. Meanwhile, in France, former Prime Minister François Fillon explicitly asked President Hollande to cancel sanctions against Russia. I believe that is the only way to pave the way for a big coalition against the Islamic state.

4. There are now tensions between Russia and Turkey after the shooting down of the Russian fighter. A climate of conflict has emerged, causing increasing uncertainty in the world economy. In your opinion, could the worsening relations between Russia and Turkey affect their respective local economies?

The climate of conflict is now a reality which is also emerging from the ongoing statements by the heads of states. On one hand, they are seeking diplomatic dialogue, which was interrupted by the shooting down of the Russian fighter over Turkish territory. On the other hand, the restrictive measures adopted by Russia only exacerbate the conflict. Hence Ankara’s decision to suspend anti-Isis raids in Syria. Moscow has withdrawn its anti-aircraft artillery from Turkish border, but what appeared to be a sign of thaw was immediately overshadowed by another episode, involving 50 Turkish entrepreneurs stuck in southern Russia, accused of lying about their reasons to enter the country. A clash between Russia and Turkey is therefore becoming increasingly likely, and when we consider US support for the Ankara government, the impact is amplified. Putin still expects explanations for the downing of the fighter, but apologies will not come. It is obvious that these tensions have an impact on the business. According to Bloomberg figures, Russia is the leading partner for Turkish imports, amounting to more than $25 billion. In 2014, the value of trade between Russia and Turkey exceeded $30 billion, but today the front pages of Russia’s financial newspapers declare alarming scenarios, because after the attack on Su-24 and Putin’s rage, everything risks being damaged. Also, the commercial relationships between the two countries that have been flourishing, despite the unfavorable economic situation, are seriously compromised. The situation is difficult, especially since Ankara is heavily dependent on Russian gas. Equilibriums are delicate and the situation is constantly changing, but the future does not promise anything good.

5. There is another aspect to manage at the moment: The arrival of Syrian refugees. How important is the EU’s intervention to addressing this phenomenon that can overwhelm all of Europe?

At the recent extraordinary summit between the EU and Turkey, Brussels and Ankara agreed on a joint action plan proposed October 15 by the European Council. The goal and expectation of all European states is to curb the Syrian refugees who escape from the civil war with the intention of reaching Europe, retaining them in Turkey. With this plan, Member States, especially Germany, which is the preferred destination of most migrants, strongly hope they reduce the flow of arrivals. With this purpose, the EU had to spend money — not without controversy. They confirmed the financial support of €3 billion that Turkey required to take over welcoming operations. Currently, Ankara hosts about 2.2 million refugees, which has already cost it $8 billion. The agreement will enable the countries of the Old Continent send back the so-called “irregular economic immigrants” who crossed over Turkey before reaching EU and who do not have the right to international protection. Turkish authorities will then assess whether to repatriate them to their respective countries of origin. In exchange, in addition to the €3 billion that “will go directly to the refugees,” as Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stated, Brussels, which will control spending procedures, promises to accelerate the visa liberalization process for Turkish citizens who want to go to the Old Continent. Furthermore, it commits to re-launching Turkey’s integration negotiations to the EU, which has been blocked for years, mainly because of Cyprus’s opposition. I hope this will be enough to ease the pressure of migration flows from Syria to Europe. The certainty is that something needs to be done and it must be done quickly.

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