In 2018, about 100,000 Syrian refugees received asylum in the European Union, every third applicant. Since 2015, over one million Syrians have fled to the EU and over four million to its southeastern neighbours Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
In Syria itself, more than six million people are on the run within their country. Five million Syrians also need humanitarian aid every day. Half of the country has been destroyed by the civil war. The World Bank estimates the cost of reconstruction at over 300 billion euros – that is how much the world community spends on all global development aid within two years.
These few figures show that the reconstruction of Syria’s economy and society is a huge challenge for the EU. At the same time, Brussels and European governments are setting clear conditions for their political and financial engagement with Head of State Bashar al-Assad and his supporters in Moscow and Tehran.
European demands range from political change, in which all sections of the Syrian people can participate, to a secure and rule-of-law environment.
The EU’s demands are right.
But many of the influential regional powers in Syria do not share them. Nevertheless, these powers also want Europe’s financial and technical commitment to the reconstruction of the country.
This is both a challenge and an opportunity for the European Neighbourhood Policy. In this way (some) Brussels interests can be asserted, even if the EU’s creative potential is limited by the influence of the central actors in the Middle East, namely Russia, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Fact Sheet Syria, 09 March 2019 – 15 April 2019, No. 73. Institut für Friedenssicherung und Konfliktmanagement (IFK), Vienna. Compiled by: IFK MENA-Team (Walter Posch, Stefanie Haring, Benedikt Zanzinger, David Fussi).
Moreover, the USA is strategically withdrawing from the region not only since Donald Trump took power. Even more so since the “Islamic State” was expelled from eastern Syria. It is precisely the unpredictability of Trump’s Middle East policy that loads further new responsibilities onto Brussels’ shoulders.
How can the EU overcome its strategic impotence in Syria?
The proposals for a European commitment in Syria range from adherence to minimum criteria for reconstruction aid and independent and reliable monitoring of investments to the prosecution and legal processing of war crimes.
In order to help reduce the risks of escalation in the Middle East through negotiations, an intensive shuttle diplomacy by several European foreign ministers between Washington, Moscow, Ankara, Tehran, Riyadh and Jerusalem should keep the difficult dialogue going or set it in motion.
This shuttle diplomacy is urgently needed – in view of the new level of confrontation between the US and Iran with consequences, in view of the flare-up violence in the Gaza Strip, and especially in view of the current wave of attacks by the Russian Air Force and the Assad regime on the province of Idlib, held by Islamist and Jihadist rebels. Attacks that once again turn tens of thousands of people into refugees.
The EU can expect concessions from the Turkish Erdogan government if Brussels strengthens trade relations in the face of the Turkish economic crisis.
In the Kremlin, Europe can hope for concessions if Brussels presents clear criteria for engagement in the reconstruction of Syria. The EU can expect concessions from the Iranian Rohani government if the INSTEX financing system used by Brussels for Iranian oil sales works also in practice.
And finally, with the Trump administration, Europeans can count on concessions if some EU member states help secure the Americans’ new position in eastern Syria.
Yet, all these concessions will only be made if all EU Member States implement the joint declarations made in Brussels in their day-to-day foreign policy.
However, this is becoming more and more difficult due to diverging opinions of some Central and Eastern European EU member states in particular. For this reason, well-established European diplomacy formats such as the EU3 and EU4 (i.e. the EU foreign representatives plus Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy) should be extended by at least one Central and Eastern European EU member state in order to better integrate the interests of these countries.
An important driving force of the Syrian civil war was and is the expulsion of parts of the population by some Kurdish militias, the so-called “Islamic state” and especially by the regime’s troops.
The Assad regime will take in some refugees if it benefits them. That is, when young men come back to serve as soldiers, when cash money flows into the corrupt system, and when workers come in that are needed for some industries that the regime wants to rebuild.
The illusion of the rapid return of all 6 million Syrian refugees must not, however, be allowed to feed those governments whose countries are home to the most refugees. The reconstruction of Syria is a long-term task.