A framework for European-Russian cooperation in Syria

If European-Russian cooperation is to move forward in Syria both sides need to settle for an outcome that delivers less than what they currently seek

After more than eight years of conflict in Syria, it is now clear that there will not be a near-term political transition away from Bashar al-Assad. This is a reality that Europeans, by and large, now accept. This does not mean, however, that Europeans are prepared to re-engage with Syria’s new landscape without conditions. On the contrary, European policy remains focused on the need to secure still meaningful gains and European tools, including sanctions, reconstruction funding, and any political legitimation remain tied to this end. Key European governments continue to hope that these cards can be used to extract compromises out of Damascus.

For some European governments the path to possible progress also depends on Russia, which is seen as being the only player that can force Assad to shift position. But while European officials are encouraged by recent US-Russian re-engagement on Syria, they remain cautious about what Moscow is willing to deliver. Until Europeans see some movement from Moscow towards delivering tangible progress on the ground, they will continue to believe that there is no justifiable reason to soften their position. There is some belief that Russia will only act once the costly burden of the longer-term management of Syria becomes more apparent, increasing Russia’s desire to lock in European financial and political support.

To this backdrop it remains hard to envisage space to forge a middle ground position which could still shape more constructive European-Russian cooperation in Syria. But while hope for progress is slim, it may be possible to outline the contours of an arrangement that could still prove mutually beneficial, delivering both ground improvements sought by Europeans and the European engagement sought by Russia. Ultimately, though, this pathway can only move forward if both sides shift position, accepting an outcome that delivers less than they currently seek.

Shared European-Russian interests in Syria?

Europeans believe that they share a number of key interests with Russia in Syria. Most fundamentally, the two are seen as wanting to secure stability, one that ensures that Syria is not a source of ongoing regional instability and terrorism threats that could impact both Europe and Russia. This necessitates the sustained defeat of ISIS and the closing down of space for other similar groups to emerge. For Europeans, the desire to secure a stable Syria is linked to the possibility of seeing Syrian refugees return home, from both within the region but also European states (though there is less domestic political pressure on this issue within Europe than Russia appears to believe). This is an outcome that Russia claims to support. Finally, there seems to be some shared desire to decrease Iranian influence in Syria, albeit in a more managed, diplomatically engaged and less zero-sum fashion than is now being advanced by the US administration. 

If these broad principles are shared, there are nonetheless deep and critical differences over the mutual interpretation of meaningful stability. Europeans have no confidence that the Assad order – as it is currently being reconstituted – can secure real stability able to guarantee European interests. Whereas Russia appears to be betting on the Assad-led Syrian government to re-cement stability, Europeans see the current system as the fundamental source of ongoing instability. Assad’s ruthless ongoing policies towards detainees and returnees are seen as prime examples, with current government policies likely to feed ongoing polarisation and block any pathway to national reconciliation.

While most Europeans have given up on insisting on Assad’s departure, they broadly share the belief that the Syrian government has to change approach and establish a new national contract capable of holding the population together. This process could conceivably be led by Damascus, though few have any confidence in Assad, but needs to be meaningful and institutionalised in a fashion that has hitherto wholly not been the case.

For the moment most Europeans do not think Russia is willing to help deliver this change. The examples of the constitutional committee and refugee returns – two issues championed by Russia but on which progress has apparently been blocked by Assad – highlight the reasons for Europeans' caution. The current military assault on Idlib, in which key civilian infrastructure such as hospitals are being targeted with Russian support, is intensifying the sense of distrust. In this context Europeans ask themselves what the benefit would be of any form of engagement, including the domestic and international political price that this reversal of position would entail, if these steps will not even deliver limited on-the-ground improvements in accordance with European interests. The result is that Europeans prefer to wait – a policy of strategic patience, as some have termed it, complemented by the exertion of some external pressure aimed at squeezing concessions out of Damascus hoping that conditions will eventually play out in their favour over time.

Framing a quid pro quo in Syria

Given Russia’s ascendant position in Syria, most Europeans believe Moscow bears the first-mover responsibility if it wants to shift course and draw in Western support. While few Europeans remain focused on getting Russia to walk away from Assad – particularly given that the United States has clearly de-prioritised this goal there is a desire for Moscow to take steps that would show Europeans that meaningful progress is actually possible by working together.

Here, a focus on the bigger political outlook is clearly a dead-end track, with both transition and Western-backed reconstruction as mutually interpreted and desired by Europeans and Russia, clearly not going to happen any time soon. But it remains to be seen whether there could still be space for a shared approach on other lower-level, but still meaningful, areas which could open a path towards enhanced cooperation.

As a starting point Europeans do now need to make clear that any desired steps do not represent a back-door route to regime-change ambitions. They also need to acknowledge the sovereignty of the government in Damascus, the country’s full territorial integrity, as well as the threat posed by terrorist groups in Idlib. But on this basis this track would need to be centred on Russia’s ability to deliver tangible progress on a core group of on-the-ground issues, including:

  • Independent access for the likes of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to detainees held within government Syrian prisons.
  • The implementation of UNHCR’s protection thresholds and parameters for refugee returns, including the establishment of a viable, impartial monitoring mechanism, to guarantee safe conditions for any returning refugees.
  • The establishment of independent delivery mechanisms to ensure that any early-recovery support is channelled towards on the ground needs rather than regime bodies.
  • An end to the targeting of medical facilities, schools and other similar civilian infrastructure in Idlib (even as European actors acknowledge the need to combat Hayat Tahrir al-Sham).
  • Guarantees that reconciliation agreements will be honoured, including an end to post-deal government arrests and the securing of local property rights.

A Russian commitment to implementing and guaranteeing this package of measures none of which represent existential threats to Damascus or the Russian-backed Syrian order –  could represent one of the few available steps able to persuade Europeans to reassess their broader position and offer Moscow some of the cooperation, including economic and political support, it seeks in Syria. 

Indeed, this approach could potentially be framed as a deliberate quid pro quo whereby the guaranteed implementation of ground steps is directly tied to the loosening of some European measures, such as the provision of post-conflict stabilisation support and a softening of sectoral sanctions (though at a more limited level compared to the wider reconstruction support that will only come with a comprehensive political agreement). It would likely also need to be tied to the long overdue establishment of the constitutional committee. While few people believe the committee can actually deliver meaningful political progress, it could help open the door to a longer-term political process and eventual elections, which all sides say they remain committed to in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 2254.

Russia’s burden

Russia may say it is unable to deliver these measures from Damascus, but Europeans will respond that without progress it will be impossible to open the door to any enhanced cooperation. While Russia’s leverage on Damascus may be limited, Europeans argue that Moscow can significantly intensify its influence by more assertively deploying its UN Security Council leverage and on-the-ground military presence to press the regime towards necessary compromise.

Ultimately, Russia may say this is an unfair burden, but given its ‘ownership’ of the Syria file, Europeans believe that Moscow bears the responsibility to move things forward, especially as in the bigger scheme of things a European reversal would essentially constitute buy-in to a Russian-backed victory for the Syrian government. If Russia shows concrete positive movement – as a package, rather than in piecemeal measures which Europeans will read as a tactical step aimed at incrementally undermining their position – the European position could then move to reciprocate. But, without movement, the reality is that most Europeans will continue to reject any material engagement. While Russia may be counting on an unravelling of the common European position – and this may indeed eventually happen in a fashion that further weakens European influence – this will not translate into Russia actively gaining tangible European support with key actors, such as France, Germany and the United Kingdom, likely to continue holding back.

In this context, European and Russian governments looking to secure a cooperative path forward in Syria would do well to move beyond the futile back and forth on transition and reconstruction and focus their attention on defining a specific package of measures that could underpin enhanced cooperation on Syria. As part of this are there tangible areas where Russia is willing and able to extract concessions from the Syrian government, accepting that these steps will need to be implemented as a prelude to any shift in the European position given Assad’s track record? And what are Europeans prepared to put on the table to incentivise this approach, particularly in terms of offering a degree of economic and political engagement? Put together this approach could still help shape a better outcome for Syrians on the ground, do more to lock in the meaningful stability purportedly desired by both sides, and help advance Russian-European cooperation at a moment when prospects for positive relations are otherwise bleak.

This article originally appeared on 17 June in RIAC.

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


Director, Middle East and North Africa programme

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