Dr. Mohammed Al-Suami
After 12 years of war in Syria, European countries are facing difficult choices regarding their Syria policies. There is even a temptation to consider the new internal and regional realities among European supporters of a more pragmatic Middle Eastern policy. Nevertheless, some internal considerations seem to prevent a policy review regarding European support to the Syrian opposition.
The continuing relationship between European capitals and Syrian activists is the key to understanding the difficulty of a reconciliation process between the former and the Syrian authorities. For instance, more than 100 Syrian associations, meeting on June 6 at the Arab World Institute in Paris, created a common platform to continue championing the establishment of a “democratic Syria.” This democratic aspiration is now mainly expressed by Syrian opposition activists based in European countries. Besides this aspiration, the geopolitical context is not in favor of a reconciliation between Brussels and Damascus, a Russian ally, in the context of the war in Ukraine.
What Europe wants in Syria is a political solution based on a compromise between the official government and the Syrian opponents in exile. There is also hope of ensuring justice for the oppressed Syrian people. Europe’s diplomatic position, based on the search for a Syrian political alternative to the rule of Bashar Assad, has been continuous since the beginning of the Syrian uprising. However, there has been some degree of flexibility among European countries during the fight against Daesh and after the earthquake that hit the country last winter.
In the wake of February’s earthquake, the European Council recalled that the restrictions on the Syrian regime were taken “in response to the violent repression of the Syrian population by the Syrian regime and those linked to it and includes 292 persons targeted by both an assets freeze and a travel ban, and 70 entities subject to an assets freeze.” However, it specified that Syria’s sanction relief, for a period of six months, aimed “to facilitate the speedy delivery of humanitarian assistance.”
In spite of this new opening, the Europeans have not taken the initiative to reopen their embassies in Syria. Indeed, since 2012, only the Czech Republic has remained diplomatically active on Syrian soil, while others severed their ties with Damascus. Since then, some European countries have decided to reopen their embassies, such as Bulgaria, Cyprus, Hungary and Greece. Despite this limited diplomatic presence, the main European countries are still not ready to reopen their diplomatic facilities in Syria at a time of rising confrontation with Russia.
It seems that the logic of building geopolitical blocks is stronger than the perspective of seeking solutions to regional problems through dialogue. Through their official support to Syrian civil society activists and strong political opposition to Damascus, Russia’s Middle Eastern ally, the Europeans want to save face and to convince regional partners to build a regional coalition against Russia.
The new regional dynamics are not in line with European views regarding the Syrian crisis. Beyond the humanitarian aid and symbolic support to exiled Syrian opponents, European capitals have little to offer the Syrian people, who face economic despair and a dire security situation. European capitals basing their Syrian policy only on the idea of confronting the “Assad regime” is not sufficient to solve the security crisis in the country. This policy does not offer any way out of the crisis and does not constitute a solution for the Syrian people. It is time for the European capitals to start a review of their Syria policies.
Policies based only on the rejection of the rule of Assad cannot be a solution for Syria in 2023. Twelve years after the beginning of the war, rethinking Syria necessitates making difficult compromises to find solutions to the economic problems of the war-torn country. Moreover, the socioeconomic desperation of the Syrian people needs to be considered when a new European policy for Syria is formulated. This new policy should not be merely a face-saving exercise and a means to project European hostility toward Russia in the context of the war in Ukraine. One way out for the European capitals is to follow the Arab states in their decision to find a new modus vivendi with the Syrian authorities to better address the regional economic and security challenges. Until today, European officials have not offered a concrete diplomatic path or any suitable proposal to end the war in Syria. After 12 years of the conflict, it is time for a new policy to find a way out of the Syrian crisis