December 17, 2016
Written by Adele Marsullo, Content Officer.
As a resounding 122 countries adopted in the UN General Assembly a Canada-led resolution to stop the violence and to support an inclusive Syrian-led political process facilitated by the UN, Aleppo was falling under the bombs of Russian and Syrian jets bringing the city under the control of President Assad. Further south, Da’esh recaptured the city of Palmyra over the weekend subverting again the fate of the war in Syria. What is certain is that the conflict is not over yet and the misery and uncertainly of the conflict is entering a new and unknown phase.
Since the EU addressed the challenges of the regional stability in its Regional Strategy for Syria, Iraq and the fight against ISIL/Da’esh in February 2015, the Iraqi Government supported by the Global Coalition has managed to recover large areas of Iraq but no political solution has yet managed to end the war in Syria. Despite being significantly affected by the humanitarian, economic and security consequences of the war, the EU has been lacking a well-coordinated policy on Syria leaving the bloc with little influence over the course of events. Yet this huge gap between inaction and consequences is unlikely to trigger a different EU policy on Syria until a phase of stabilisation and political transition is achieved.
The EU contribution to a lasting political solution and potential key role in the post-agreement reconstruction will be a crucial test of a genuine common foreign and security policy for the EU. As a matter of fact, the Commission has envisaged in its 2017 Work Programme an EU Strategy on Syria to present a viable way on how the EU can contribute to a peaceful and democratic future in Syria. The question is if there will ever be need or space for such a role. With only the city of Iblid left outside the control of the regime – except for ISIL-held Raqqa, the next phase of the conflict is yet to be decided. It will be too late when the EU will realise that the devastating consequences of the Syrian conflict are not only putting at stake the country’s territorial unity, but also the stability of both the region and the EU itself. If and when the war will be over, channelling rivers of money to the country will not redeem its pitiful diplomatic and political efforts, instead it will confirm the powerlessness of its role in Syria.
From inaction to marginalisation
There is no doubt that the Syrian civil war constitutes one of the most unpredictable conflicts in modern times. Being borne from the ashes of Europe’ successive and devastating wars of the twentieth century, the EU was “deeply concerned” and did “strongly condemned” the ruthless violence and shocking repression perpetrated by the Assad regime. However, from 2011 onwards, the several denouncements never translated in a concrete political actions or meaningful diplomatic initiatives, neither in the context of international discussions nor in Syria.
Contrarily to the relatively modest diplomatic and political activity of the EU, which in practice accounted for a second-tier role in the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), the US-Russia diplomatic convergence was an unexpected reality for EU leaders. Further loss of political leverage followed the EU’s application of economic sanctions and the closedown of all external relations with Syria. The EU’s soft power tools did not follow the repeated calls from EU leaders and institutions condemning the atrocities and human rights abuses of the Syrian regime and Da’esh and asking for immediate cessation of hostilities to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid. As months turned into years, the EU’s inaction on the events in Syria turned into marginalisation.
So far, the EU’s role in Syria has mainly remained confined to humanitarian aid. As leading donor in Syria, the EU has already mobilised € 9 billion since 2011 to alleviate the suffering of the population and address the consequence of the war both in Syrian and in the region. In Aleppo and in the whole of Syria, the situation on the ground changes every hour making the delivery of assistance increasingly challenging but EU-UN initiatives resisting as last strongholds of humanitarian assistance providers in the country. However, in face of the blatant disregard for international humanitarian law (IHL) by all parties to the conflict, the EU capacity to hold them accountable for the documented human rights violations, combat impunity and uphold transitions justice by effectively supporting a socially inclusive peace-building effort may help redeem its soft power and the preserve the validity of IHL.
The military actions of the Assad regime is already disintegrating the country into segregated and competing regions run by different armed groups and the territory risks breaking apart along sectarian lines. Even if the regime were to impose its military control over the whole country, the underlying causes of the conflict would remain causing continued violence, the radicalisation of armed oppositions and the spread of violent extremism and terrorism. At present, the fall of Aleppo under the Assad regime and its allied forces have drastically reduced the chances of a national reconciliation process and the restoration of the rule of law. If the EU hopes to carve out a role in the post-conflict phase it must adjust and recalibrate its position vis-à-vis international and regional actors. Most importantly, the EU needs to increase its diplomatic outreach to all parties of the conflict and key global and regional players before starting to speak about post-agreement reconstruction.
Image by Foreign and Commonwealth Office user under CC License.1989 Generation