The ten-year anniversary of the Syrian uprising marks a desperate moment. Above all for the millions of Syrians still suffering under the grip of a brutal regime and an economic crisis pushing the country towards famine.
But it’s also a moment to note Europe’s ongoing irrelevance. While Europeans may believe they have managed immediate interests related to migration flows and terrorism threats, they have been wholly unable to influence the conflict’s underlying drivers. With the widening spectre of famine and deepening state collapse on its southern border – spanning Syria, Lebanon and Iraq - the Levant is likely to pose fundamental new challenges to Europe in the years ahead. For Europeans there is both a moral and strategic imperative to avoid this outcome.
To this end Europeans need to stop tying their engagement to an impossible outcome and waiting on others to shape Syria developments on their behalf. Instead, they should chart a pro-active approach of their own with a focus on issues that really matter. As part of this Europeans need to move beyond the moribund political process and should instead look to better support Syrians on the ground, including by laying out more viable quid pro quos with Russia. This will aim to address immediate needs but also to strengthen Syrian society’s ability to pursue a longer-term strategy of transformation.
A decade of despair
From the outset of the 2011 uprising, Europeans placed themselves in alignment with the opposition, calling for Assad to step aside. This largely took the form of political backing for the UN process, based around the 2012 Geneva communique. In European eyes this represented international agreement on the need to transition away from Assad.
Faced with deepening military intervention by Iran and Russia, Europeans clung to the hope of the UN political process, even as the balance of power swung decisively in Assad’s favour and external influence moved towards the Astana platform. But European priorities also shifted focus with the massive migration wave of 2015, when more than one million Syrians sought refuge in Europe, and the rise of ISIS, which conducted a series of deadly attacks in European cities. These developments resulted in a refugee deal with Turkey and European military intervention focused on combatting jihadists rather than Assad. On both these fronts Europeans ultimately claimed success but the shift of focus further diminished their influence on the core conflict.
Today Europeans tie re-engagement with the Syrian government – and the deployment of economic reconstruction - to the political process. The EU’s official policy, despite some mutterings on the edges, is broadly aligned with a US approach which seeks to use external pressure, including fierce sanctions mandated by the 2019 Caesar Act, to force significant concessions out of the regime. Western actors also hope that the country’s entrenched fragmentation – with the US preventing the regime from re-entering the resource-rich northeast and Turkey the northwest - can be leveraged against Damascus.
This approach, combined with corrupt regime mismanagement and Lebanon’s economic collapse, has pushed Syria towards economic implosion and a deepening humanitarian crisis. Yet Assad and his backers have shown zero indication that they will yield, as demonstrated by the government’s unwillingness to constructively engage the UN-led constitutional process. Even as the wider state collapses, the regime has ensured that core resources remain tied to its tools of repression and control. Meanwhile, Russia’s intervention remains relatively inexpensive for Moscow despite some Western hopes that it would be caught in a Syrian quagmire.
What should Europe do?
The future of Syria is intensely bleak. The current economic implosion is already provoking immense Syrian suffering and could in time represent a grave challenge to Europe, with further state collapse likely feeding renewed refugee flows and space for new extremism. The bottom line is that this is driven by the regime’s brutal unwillingness to respond to the needs of its people. But this does not mean that Europe should accept a policy of wait and see, hoping beyond hope that US, Russian and UN manoeuvring will eventually deliver regime concessions.
So what can Europeans now do, beyond more obvious elements such as intensifying support for regional states bearing the brunt of the enduring refugee crisis, committing humanitarian funding and supporting accountability mechanisms?
To begin, Europeans need to acknowledge what is still possible in Syria. Rather than continuing to pursue near-term political transition they should focus their efforts on helping Syrians survive so that they can lead a longer-term process of change. As many Syrians now say, it’s impossible to wage revolution if they can’t even eat. This will mean a determined shift of European focus, turning away from a political process centred on the dysfunctional constitutional committee and tying European influence to issues that still matter on the ground. Europe’s political and economic weight is not immense but could conceivably still count for something if mobilised in pursuit of sub-transition objectives – such as humanitarian and stabilisation access, local governance mechanisms, and the plight of detainees - that don’t existentially threaten Assad’s position. This effort should be focused on Moscow which retains important, if not absolute, influence over an intransigent regime. While some claim this approach has been tried and failed, Western negotiations on Syria have continually been compromised by the enduring linkage to an impossible national political process and removal of Iranian forces from the country.
At the same time, Europeans must devote greater energy to supporting Syrians on the ground. Across the country, in both regime and non-regime-controlled areas, Europeans should look at means of increasing desperately needed assistance, moving beyond humanitarian aid towards early recovery and development support with the aim of bolstering Syrian societal resilience. To be sure, Europeans need to tread very cautiously, working on localised initiatives and holding firm to key principles to ensure that new aid is not gobbled up by the regime. These constraints mean this approach can never be dramatically scaled up, but it is also wrong to say that nothing more can be done so long as Assad remains in power. Europeans have a moral and strategic interest to help bolster Syrian societal resilience and must commit to this path.