A decade of death and ruin: How Europe can create breathing space in Syria

Circumventing the regime to support Syrians on the ground is difficult but Europeans need to adjust their Syria policy in favour of this effort

Julien Barnes-Dacey
Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
A graffiti by Syrian artist Aziz Esmer depicting the 10th year of Syrian civil war is seen in Idlib, Syria. Muhammed Said / Anadolu Agencypicture alliance / AA | Muhammed Said ©

The Syria conflict has now lasted a painful ten years, delivering a decade of death and ruin. But even as levels of fighting subside and Syria moves down the list of global priorities, a dangerous new crisis is brewing. Syria is in the midst of a catastrophic economic unravelling, which is quickly pushing the country towards famine and wider state collapse. This could have enormous implications for Europe. But a misguided sense that the conflict is over, a belief that lingering risks can be contained, and the obstacles posed by Bashar al-Assad’s continued grip on power are feeding European disengagement from the crisis.  

This month the European Union and United Nations are co-chairing the fifth Brussels Conference on Syria. This represents an opportunity for European governments to break out of their inertia. It is critical that international actors step up with desperately needed humanitarian funding. But Europeans also need to mobilise behind a re-energised approach that recognises the humanitarian and strategic imperative of preventing complete state collapse and doing more to strengthen Syrian societal resilience.

After a decade of fighting, which left up to 500,000 dead and saw the Syrian government commit widespread human rights abuses against its own people, including the use of chemical weapons, it is hard to imagine that the situation could worsen. But for many Syrians this is their daily reality, with an accelerating currency collapse, rampant inflation, and widespread shortages pushing the country towards famine. This economic crisis is being driven by the regime’s corrupt and brutal rule, Lebanon’s economic collapse, and fierce US sanctions. According to the UN, more than 80 per cent of Syrians now live below the poverty line and 60 per cent are food-insecure, with people turning towards ever more desperate means to survive.

While some Western governments hope that this pressure will finally force serious political concessions out of the regime, Damascus remains committed to its repressive levers of control. As resources dwindle, it has only intensified its firm security hold over core areas of the country, including by cracking down on anger within its own loyalist community. Eventual regime collapse may be a possibility, but the likelier outcome is that Assad tightens his grip on key networks of power and patronage as remaining public services and institutions disintegrate. With Syrians engulfed by poverty and despair, these conditions are further killing off prospects of any form of eventual positive transformation.

Europeans should incentivise the opening of space to support on-the-ground needs that do not threaten the regime’s fundamental position

For Europeans this situation is sure to feed acute ongoing challenges despite the decrease in nationwide fighting and hardening of frontlines across the north of the country. It will confirm the country’s place as a hub of long-lasting instability, refugee flows, and ongoing jihadist mobilisation. Europeans should be particularly worried given the simultaneous unravelling in neighbouring Lebanon, as well as Iraq’s deepening economic woes.

To begin to address this situation, European governments need to put Syria back on their own collective agenda and to recalibrate their approach to the crisis. An immediate test will come in Brussels when international funding pledges are made to support humanitarian needs. At the recent Yemen conference less than 50 per cent of UN funding targets were met, and there is a real risk that international support for Syria will now dry up.

But Europeans also need to do more to expand on-the-ground support channels. While the Assad regime is the primary cause of Syria’s collapse, Europeans need to more honestly grapple with the reality of his survival and should recognise the humanitarian and strategic value of strengthening Syrian society’s ability to carve out some breathing space and to advance incremental change from within as part of a longer-term vision of change. This will mean moving beyond the narrow European focus on a political process that remains fundamentally stuck given the regime’s existential fears and its unwillingness to submit to any political reform.

Europeans should now prioritise issues such as humanitarian and stabilisation access, including the renewal of the UN resolution authorising cross-border aid flows into Idlib, local governance mechanisms, and the plight of detainees. These are the issues that need to be at the forefront of the international agenda on Syria, with a pivot away from the long-standing expectation that the constitutional process can somehow serve as a door-opener to wider gains. While not moving towards reconstruction support, Europeans should also be prepared to increase development assistance, looking to support core social infrastructure such as the medical and education sectors and smaller productive areas of the economy. This support should extend into non-regime-held areas, whether the Kurdish-controlled north-east, or Idlib, which is now dominated by the Islamist Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. Needs are acute in both places, and there is a European interest in carefully supporting stabilisation efforts despite the political dilemmas posed by the nature of these areas’ governance systems.

Europeans clearly need to tread carefully and should not be willing to let their aid fill regime coffers. But they can already do more to identify local projects and partners, as well as means of financing and operating, through which core principles can be met, taking better advantage of the narrow space that does exist on the ground. A more dynamic European approach will not transform Syria but could still deliver valuable localised gains. As part of this approach, Europeans should also press the Biden administration – whose policy is still based on a Trump-era policy that sought to destabilise Syria through economic pressure in order to confront Russia and Iran – about the need for clearer and more accessible US sanctions exemptions.

But Europeans must also deploy their own influence in a smarter fashion. While the regime does not want to yield on political reform, Europeans need to more seriously test whether they can incentivise the opening of further space to support on-the-ground needs that do not threaten the regime’s fundamental position. This effort should primarily be focused on negotiations with Moscow, which has long sought Western economic support in the country and which holds important, if not absolute, influence over Damascus. While some claim this approach has been tried, Western negotiations with Russia on Syria have always been compromised by the enduring connection to a political endgame, still essentially aimed at securing Assad’s departure, and wider unattainable asks such as Iran’s withdrawal from the country. It is time to clearly articulate and proactively probe a more realistic, but still principled, assessment of conditionality. This should be based around an incremental and bottom-up approach such as the increased provision of localised European stabilisation support in exchange for wider on-the-ground access and transparent implementation mechanisms.  

To be sure Syria will never enjoy real stability so long as Assad remains in power and no meaningful political reform takes place. The Syrian dictator must remain an international pariah and should not be given a pathway to normalisation. Europeans can simultaneously increase support for important accountability mechanisms, such as trials prosecuted under universal jurisdiction. But this immediate approach would seek to prevent Syria’s full unravelling. It aims to wedge open some space to alleviate deepening Syrian suffering, support Syrian societal resilience, and strengthen some measure of bottom-up stabilisation in line with European interests.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

Author

Julien Barnes-Dacey
Director, Middle East and North Africa programme