Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor at The Washington Post.
Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s head of foreign affairs and security policy, thought she had a tough job helping to steer the Iran nuclear deal. But the Syrian refugee crisis has proved even more difficult. Visiting the U.N. General Assembly in New York this past week, she told The Washington Post that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has to go — but not before he helps engineer peace in his country. Edited excerpts follow.
The European Union is trying to solve the ongoing refugee crisis. How do you see the situation?
We have had an increase in the flow both of refugees and migrants over the last six months. This is not just a European crisis; it is a regional and global crisis. If you look at the number of Syrians, you have 8 million internally displaced people still in Syria and 4 million in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. You have something like 350,000 refugees in Europe.
How big is the flow of refugees worldwide?
A big majority of the people who are moving — the migrants and refugees — are within Africa. One number tells everything: The percentage of refugees of the total population of Europe is 0.1 percent. In Lebanon, it is 25 percent of the population. We have to put things in perspective. The issue is manageable for us Europeans.
At an E.U. meeting last week, you decided to allocate a certain number of refugees among the E.U. countries.
Yes, [we will] share the responsibility among the 28 different member states for 160,000 refugees. So it will not only be the first country where they land that takes responsibility but all the others together.
The E.U. will divide up 160,000 refugees, but you said there are 350,000 in all. What happens to the rest?
We receive people who are coming to the front-line countries — mainly Greece and Italy — to see if they are entitled to refugee status. For those not entitled to protection, there are programs to return them back home.
In the E.U., a refugee is entitled to asylum in the first country in which he or she lands. That rule was overwhelmed by numbers. But why has the E.U. allowed refugees to be taken by traffickers and walked across the Balkans? Why was there no procedure put in place to process them?
The trafficking organizations mainly [bring people] from the countries where they live, be it Syria or Libya, to the European coasts. In these last months, the numbers were so high that it was physically impossible in most cases for European states to properly identify, receive and process all the requests. And people move. So there was a flow, especially through the Balkans.
Things appeared to be very chaotic when Hungary began putting up fences.
It was painful to see fences or walls built in Europe when our history was built on open borders, bringing down walls and building open societies.
You say the refugee crisis is a global and regional phenomenon. How do you feel the United States and the West have done in helping to solve it?
The E.U. has spent around 10 billion euros. One way in which the international community could help more is to increase financial support to international agencies and to the countries that are hosting a big number of refugees. I am [also] convinced that international partners could take more refugees for resettlement. The biggest work we have to do together — especially with the United States — is to try to solve the conflicts in Syria and Libya. These are the main sources of instability that provoke a big refugee flow.
Do you think the first step is to try and stop President Assad’s barrel bombs or to establish a no-fly zone in Syria for the opposition? Must the Islamic State be eliminated? Does Assad have to go?
I don’t think it is realistic to imagine that any refugee that escaped from Syria — from both the regime and ISIL — is going back anytime soon unless he or she sees a political solution to the conflict in Syria.
That means the end of Assad?
No, that means engaging in a political transition — a process where all Syrian parties, regime representatives and opposition, come together and elaborate a common transition plan for the country. Obviously that excludes terrorist organizations like [Jabhat] al-Nusra and ISIL. We are working with the U.N. to try to organize a political transition in Syria, with the regional and international actors.
How are you doing this?
Iran, for example, has a lot of influence on the regime. I think they understand that this is going to be their first test to see if they can play a constructive role after the [nuclear] deal.
But isn’t Iran keeping the Syrian regime in power?
If we want [Syria’s] regime to come to the table to work on a transition, we need to bring pressure on it from those that have influence on it, which is Russia and Iran.
How do you feel about Russia’s recent establishment of a military presence in Syria? Is Russia there to shore up President Assad, not to cooperate in a transition?
From what I understand, Russia’s main worry is that there could be a complete collapse of the state structures in Syria, something similar to what happened in Libya, and that would endanger even the idea of having a transition. I think everybody realizes it would be impossible to have a future role for Assad in Syria. But a transition means you have the regime present at the table. Imagine what happens if Damascus falls, in terms of refugees.
Do you think that is likely?
I don’t have enough evidence to say. On the other hand, Russia is taking its seat at the table, saying, “I am here and will be part of the process.”
And it wants to ensure its own military bases.
There is a military component, but we Europeans are convinced that there is no purely military solution to the war.
What about Assad’s barrel bombs? Aren’t they driving the population out?
People are leaving Syria for many reasons. The two main ones are the attacks by the regime and by Daesh [the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State]. We have to consider that the Syrian population is middle class and well educated. So after 4
What about the proposed creation of a “no fly” zone in Syria, where both the population and opposition could live? Do you favor this?
I will tell you openly: If I were a Syrian mother living in one of the neighboring countries, having seen the atrocities back home, I would not feel reassured that I could go back to any safe zone. I don’t think it is realistic to call them “safe” unless we have an end to the conflict and to Daesh. If refugees now living in Turkey hear there is a prospect for them to be sent back to Syria, they might run away rather than go back.
They might run to Europe?
Yes. The only way of ensuring safe zones would be a substantial presence on the ground in an area in the northern part of Syria. I am not sure it is a realistic option.
Is solving Syria more difficult than the Iran nuclear deal?
Definitely. But through the Iran deal, we showed that even the most complicated and impossible problem could be [solved] through diplomacy. It took us 12 years, but we got there. This is more difficult. Diplomacy can work. Four and a half years [of war] have not brought results: Assad is still there, and Daesh is still there.
Do you blame the United States in part for the situation in Syria?
No blame at all. You mentioned the Iran deal. I’m confident the U.S. leadership will continue in that direction.
Do you worry that the refugee crisis will fuel the rise of nationalism within Europe?
The U.S. has been built on different groups coming together, whereas Europe has been a homogenous society, not a melting pot. If we come out of this with an understanding that being different is a plus and not a threat, we will grow as Europeans. We need political leadership brave enough to pass that message to the people.
In the year of Charlie Hebdo and other attacks in Europe by Islamic extremists, won’t some fear that the refugees will include a few terrorists?
The attacks in Europe were not done by foreigners. They were done by European citizens. We also have a good number of European fighters in Daesh. It doesn’t help our security to panic about something that is not real.