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Brussels’ approach on Syria has failed

Michael Laubsch

The violent clashes in Syria have not yet ended and five major and regional powers (Iran, Israel, Russia, Turkey and the United States) are still militarily present in the country.

And yet: the civil war has long been decided in favor of the regime. Actors with different and sometimes conflicting interests – especially the Syrian leadership, Russia, Turkey and Iran – mainly implement projects limited to the local level. What they have in common is that they are hardly geared towards the needs of the population.

The Syrian leadership has made it clear that it will only accept a foreign reconstruction engagement from those countries that are friendly to it and provide support without any conditions. However, Damascus’s allies Russia and Iran are neither able nor willing to provide funds for a comprehensive, nationwide reconstruction. Other potential supporters have so far categorically rejected any engagement (US), are hesitant (the Arab Gulf states), are only positioning themselves for later engagement (China) or are only concentrating on the territories they occupy (Turkey). The economic impact of the Covid 19 pandemic, particularly the slump in the oil price, is likely to limit further available funds, particularly in the Gulf States.

For its part, the European Union and its member states have made a commitment to reconstruction dependent on progress towards negotiated conflict settlement and political reforms in Syria. Since there is no such move visible, EU engagement has remained largely limited to humanitarian aid. The EU and its member states are by far the largest donor in this area: From 2011 to late autumn 2019, they provided a total of over 17 billion euros in humanitarian aid to Syrians in the country itself and in neighboring countries. This aid is mainly implemented locally by UN organizations and international non-governmental organizations. It is basically limited to emergency care of the population, refugees and internally displaced people.

At the same time, the EU has imposed extensive sanctions. On the one hand, these aim at people responsible for the violent repression of the population and the use of internationally outlawed weapons, whose activities directly benefit the Assad regime or who profit from business that violates housing, land and property rights. On the other hand, the sanctions are intended to limit the regime’s financing options and its repression capacities and to isolate it internationally. With this in mind, Europeans have imposed an arms embargo on Damascus and export restrictions on goods that can be used for internal repression. They have imposed an oil embargo, frozen the assets of the Syrian Central Bank in the EU and banned exports of “dual use” goods to Syria.

The sanction package also includes far-reaching sector-related measures that stand in the way of reconstruction. This applies in particular to restrictions on the financing of oil and electricity infrastructure projects, the ban on the European Investment Bank (EIB) to fund projects in Syria that would benefit the state, as well as sanctions against the Syrian financial and banking sector and the financing of trade with the country.

The EU approach has proven to be unsuccessful. First, it is proven that the EU and its member states had so far at least minor to none influence on the local conflict dynamics and the behavior of the Syrian leadership. This is due to the fact that they are not present on a military level and have hardly put their political weight internationally into the conflict. But it is also because they stick to a no longer realistic goal. The EU has softened its rhetoric, it no longer speaks explicitly of regime change or power sharing. Both the sanction regime and the conditioning of reconstruction aid continue to target regime changes. However, Brussels has not yet formulated what kind of behavior change in Damascus below the threshold of a political transition would lead to an intensified EU engagement.

Second, the European approach is problematic for both the focus on humanitarian aid and the comprehensive sanctions do not allow effective and sustainable support for the population. This would be urgently needed, especially in view of the worsening economic and supply crisis in Syria. In spring 2020, around eleven of the 18 million Syrians remaining in the country were dependent on humanitarian aid. The EU is thus in danger of helping to consolidate a situation in which the Syrian population remains dependent on international aid supplies on the long run.

Thirdly, there are breaks in the common European stance. Above all, Germany, France and Great Britain are sticking to the previous position. In recent years, other EU member states have re-established relationships with relevant people from the regime’s leadership (Italy, Poland) or have vigorously discussed the reopening of their embassies with greater economic engagement in Syria (Italy, Austria, Hungary, Poland). One thing is obvious: If the EU member states fall apart when dealing with Damascus, they risk losing the little influence they potentially have. Because only if reconstruction funds, the return to diplomatic relations and the reduction of personal sanctions are used in a targeted and common way, such measures could as a result develop political weight.

The EU and its member states should therefore adapt their relations with Syria in such a way that they are better tailored to local challenges and current circumstances, harmonize EU interests and instruments, use the limited scope they have as effective as possible.

First of all, incentives and sanctions cannot help Europeans do what the Assad regime and its allies militarily thwarted: A negotiated conflict settlement and a political opening. It also means not deluding yourself that Damascus could be a reliable partner in the country’s economic recovery and reconstruction, combating terrorism and returning refugees.

Specifically, Europeans should make a more sustainable contribution to an economic recovery in Syria. To do this, they would have to reduce sectoral sanctions that hinder development. Under certain conditions, even in areas controlled by the regime, the rehabilitation of basic infrastructure would have to be supported and living conditions improved through work programs and local procurement.

Sustainable stabilization can only be achieved, however, if there are far-reaching reforms in the country. With this in mind, Europeans should spell out their “More for More” approach and thereby show a concrete path to how relations with Damascus can be largely normalized in return for political opening and structural reforms.

However, they should refrain from fully normalizing their dealings with the leadership of the Syrian regime. Rather, the task is to speed up criminal investigation of war crimes, serious human rights violations and the use of internationally outlawed weapons.