Syrian voices: Where next for European policy?

Seven Syrians discuss how Europe can improve its approach to Syria.

The ongoing crisis in Idlib has once again exposed European weakness in trying to shape developments in Syria. While many European leaders remain committed to a meaningful political process in Syria – and believe that economic support and political legitimisation provides leverage to create a positive outcome – they are failing to exert meaningful influence on developments in the country.

The European Council on Foreign Relations gathered a group of Syrian voices from both within and outside the country to reflect on how European policy might become more impactful. This collection complements an ongoing series of intra-Syria dialogues convened by ECFR to explore the future of the country and European policy on the ongoing crisis.

Female civil society activist (anonymous), Syria/Lebanon

The European Union should be taking on a much stronger role in convening relevant parties to negotiate a sustainable end to the disaster in Idlib. Not only is this important for Syrians; it also matters to Europeans, given the risk of new refugee flows. Why has the EU been so silent on Idlib and so willing to allow the issue to completely fall out of its hands? It’s clear that the United Nations Security Council is unwilling to resolve the crisis, and the Astana group is not forging a solution to it – so where is Europe?

Here and elsewhere, Europeans need to think more broadly, moving beyond a singular focus on supporting the UN-led political talks. Beyond Idlib, Europeans should push to widen the UN process, placing a greater emphasis on initiatives that are just as important, and more likely to achieve progress, than the political track.

As part of this approach, EU states should clearly lay out the necessary conditions for recovery support on the ground – with a focus on protecting civil society – and back this up with increased funding for organisations that work on local issues, particularly those led by women. As staying completely out of Syria helps no one, the EU should expand its role beyond humanitarian assistance. Europeans need to find the right partners – be they women or middle-class leaders – who now represent the gateway to much-needed early recovery and peacebuilding opportunities. They should focus on long-term projects that can still help the country in key areas such as education. This must be based on the implementation of serious measures that prevent aid from being engulfed in government corruption and ensure that the EU’s Syrian partners can work freely. Europeans should quietly cooperate with local civil society representatives who can mediate with the government on critical issues on the ground.

Europeans need to invest in the Syrian people as best they can. This should include reviewing sanctions on the country. Measures on individuals involved in perpetrating violence and human rights abuses should remain in place, but more needs to be done to help civilians – who bear the pain of some of the measures. Europeans must not follow the US line and exacerbate an economic crisis that suffocates the wider population – including internally displaced people and any remaining civil society actors.

Maria al-Abdeh, Women Now for Development, Germany

As I write these words, 50 members of the organisation I lead, Women Now for Development, have fled their homes in Idlib with their families. The Syrian regime and Russia have deliberately targeted schools and hospitals in north-western Syria with airstrikes, forcing nearly one million people to flee. Displaced children have frozen to death and mothers have not been able to breastfeed their infants because of trauma and fear. While the impact of this war on civilians generally is devastating, the impact on women has been disproportionately severe.

As it considers how to shape its future strategies on Syria, the EU must take into account the disproportionate impact of this war on women in both the short and long term.

More than half of all Syrians have been displaced since the beginning of the conflict – most of them by the Syrian regime, but some by other sides in the conflict, including Turkey. Forced displacement is a crime that the EU must address in any serious effort to plan a more secure and peaceful future for Syria, especially through reconstruction and transitional justice.

And, while some of the impact of the conflict on women has been reported by the media, a more silent crisis is devastating the lives of women every day. One crucial impact is the absence of documentation and legal status, which places women in a situation of high vulnerability. Another one is the impact of the forced disappearances of loved ones. On 16 March 2011, around 40 Syrians, almost half of them women, gathered in front of the Ministry of the Interior in Damascus to demand the release of political detainees. This gathering was one of the earliest sparks of the Syrian revolution. Today, more than 100,000 Syrians have been forcibly disappeared. Every day, we receive news of people being arrested by the Syrian regime, never to be heard from again.

While arbitrary detention has been used by all sides in the conflict, the Syrian regime was the first to use it and is by far the most prolific perpetrator. Thousands of reports have documented the horrific torture many have endured – and yet justice is still so distant. No peace will ever be possible without meeting families’ right to know about their loved ones – a step towards justice that will change their lives and treat the root causes of the conflict.

Families for Freedom, a women-led group of families of the disappeared, has formulated clear demands that the EU must support: freedom for all detained Syrians who are still alive; information on the names and whereabouts of the detained; the identification of burial sites of those who have been executed or tortured to death; humanitarian access to detention sites; the abolition of exceptional courts; and accountability for the perpetrators of these crimes on all sides.

Sexual violence has been used within and outside the context of forced disappearance. While it has been used against men, women, and children, the impact on women has been particularly horrific as it affects all aspects of their lives (social, economic, and political). The EU has shown good will in funding programmes that support justice for survivors. Now, it must take into account the perspectives of female survivors of gender-based violence, and women in general, in shaping its response.

As a Syrian woman, I am concerned about the fate of every Syrian woman, man, and child in Idlib, Hassakeh, Damascus, Raqqa, and Latakia. The EU must also view us this way – as one people – without adopting policies that divide us by geography, ethnicity, or belief.

Omar Abdulaziz-Hallaj, Common Space Initiative, Member of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, Lebanon

After nine years of war, Damascus is asserting control over most of Syria. Yet institutions and social support systems are collapsing, intensifying a humanitarian and developmental crisis. The country has experienced structural transformation, an entrenched war economy that siphons away resources and aggravates poverty, endemic human rights abuses, and radicalisation. Since 2011, the European modus operandi on Syria has been defined by short planning cycles, a legacy of the hypothesis that the regime would fall. This policy limited aid to narrow humanitarian support out of fear of legitimising the regime. While urgent humanitarian action is essential to address the needs of hundreds of thousands of newly displaced people and to support shattered livelihoods – with millions on the brink of famine across the country – European narratives on Syria need to take a new, broader approach.

European actors have long supported the UN-led political process, yet European policy did not explore other strategic and workable entry points for peace. Under UN Security Council Resolution 2254, Europeans no longer demand the downfall of the regime – yet they still require an undefined “meaningful transition”. The resolution outlines the key elements needed to unlock the political process: governance, a constitution, and elections. However, it fails to tackle deeper structural problems. As such, even if the conflicting parties broker a political deal in Geneva, it won’t have a leg to stand on.

Three paradigm shifts are needed to help Europeans regain the initiative.

Firstly, Europeans should put their weight behind decentralisation within a unified territorial order. Decentralisation has been removed from the political menu due to the political opposition’s failure to develop a footprint inside Syria, a lack of traction for the Kurdish-dominated governance model in the north-east, and the Syrian government’s hostility towards negotiations with local leaders. However, Europeans need to move the decentralisation question away from dividing the country into distinct areas of control and towards a process of developing credible local agency. They need to strengthen new local leadership (inclusive of women) and enable them to progressively ascend to the national level. Europe can contribute to this goal by prioritising the creation of safe local spaces, as part of its support for a “meaningful transition.”

Secondly, European funding should have greater room to manoeuvre, including around sanctions. Europe’s risk-averse approach has reduced its ability to engage with local actors in all parts of Syria; this will have lasting implications on societal resilience. Europe has focused on supply-side instruments that create dependency on aid and compete with local resilience structures. Aid should now shift to demand-driven, bottom-up funding instruments (such as those involving microcredit, support for local initiatives to leverage community resources, and the recreation of local economic value chains). This approach should focus on channelling funds to the lower levels of Syrian society and using small disbursements to make it less vulnerable to corruption. Syrians in the diaspora can contribute to this process with their knowledge and resources. As part of this approach, European countries should negotiate a comprehensive aid package with the UN to create greater leverage over aid modalities.

Thirdly, to create a credible process of transformation, Europe needs to change its benchmarks for defining such a transformation. Currently, neither Europeans’ expectations of the process nor what they are willing to offer in return are clearly benchmarked to create a realistic blueprint for change. Moving beyond a regime change narrative towards a focus on incremental but meaningful transformation, Europeans should lay out clear measures that the Syrian government needs to implement to receive external support. This should entail a shift away from the assumption that the regime is a singular agent and towards an understanding of it as a system involving many actors – some of whom Europe can incentivise to support the process. Benchmarks should also be transparent to Syrian communities, to assure continued accountability.

The time to act is now. Syria’s deepening crisis is sinking the whole region into chaos. Paradigms need to shift to allow for a more effective approach. Zero-sum positioning may be politically expedient, but it is morally and practically short-sighted. Europe cannot afford an even deeper crisis in Syria. Moving back from the precipice is not a glorious act but it is the lesser evil.

Assaad Al-Achi, Baytna Syria, Turkey

The EU’s official line continues to be that it will only provide reconstruction assistance to Syria once “a comprehensive, genuine and inclusive political transition is firmly under way”. The EU sees political conditionality and reconstruction as sources of leverage that it can use to effect political change. But is this position still tenable?

By February 2020, the Syrian regime seemed to be on its way to re-establishing control over much of Idlib. When this battle is over, the Syrian authorities will have likely regained more than 80 percent of Syrian territory. What is left will be directly managed either by Turkey or by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with support from the US. The Syrian authorities, via Ali Mamlouk, head of the Syrian security agencies, have also started direct negotiations with Turkey and the SDF. It is clear that the regime is on its way to reaffirming its presence across the entire country, either via military means or via negotiations.

The political process in Geneva is frail, at best. It regained some life with the launch of the Constitutional Committee in October 2019. However, early signs of positive engagement quickly faltered. Does the formation of the Constitutional Committee mean that an inclusive political process is firmly under way? This is what Russia has hoped for – even if it did not intend for the process to lead to a political transition – and why it was pushing so hard for its creation. Moscow essentially wants the EU to pay for the reconstruction of what Russian forces and the Syrian regime have destroyed. As such, Russia saw the committee as the gateway to European support.

Against this military and political backdrop, the EU is currently on a dangerous path – one that will lead it to failure and, perhaps, into a Russian trap. A more sustainable approach that still seeks to make a positive difference would anchor conditionality in key human rights principles rather than easy-to-manipulate political statements. Given that all Syrians who have suffered deeply throughout the conflict have a right to reconstruction funding, Europeans need to think about how they can proceed in supporting these needs without compromising on their core principles. Europe should not use reconstruction money to reward or punish one party over another. It should be balanced, needs-based, and driven by local priorities. The EU should use reconstruction funding to support victims by protecting their civic, political, land, and property rights. To prevent those who have violated human rights from exploiting reconstruction contracts, the EU should put in place a strict monitoring and accountability mechanism. The bloc needs to couple this with an effective targeted sanctions policy that deters, and provides accountability for, further such violations.

Europeans should also increasingly focus on the essential task of repairing Syria’s social fabric. They must prioritise measures that sustain Syrian civil society structures through social cohesion, local conflict resolution, and peacebuilding initiatives. Without a vibrant, independent, and empowered civil society, it will be very hard to repair the social fabric.

Joseph Daher, Lausanne University, Switzerland; European University Institute, Italy

The catastrophic humanitarian situation in Idlib has reached unprecedented levels, with nearly one million people displaced since December 2019 – when the Syrian regime, aided by the Russian government, started its offensive there. Despite their current weakness, European states must activate all diplomatic channels to prevent renewed conflict in Idlib and provide humanitarian assistance to internally displaced persons and other people in need. Europe should make similar attempts to prevent the Turkish army and its proxies from launching another offensive against the territories dominated by the Kurdish-led autonomous administration in northern and eastern Syria.

Faced with a human tragedy in Idlib and on a wider basis, the EU must end its restrictive migration policies and provide a dignified welcome policy for refugees. This means putting an end to the deal it concluded with the Turkish government in 2016, which seeks to prevent the arrival of refugees in Europe in exchange for €6 billion. Similarly, the EU must reassess the role of its border guard agency, Frontex – which is allegedly guilty of numerous human rights violations, and of having transformed the Mediterranean into a cemetery for refugees and migrants.

More broadly, the EU must support a process that truly aims to achieve a political transition towards a democratic framework – despite its limited influence on parties to the Syrian conflict. It must also prioritise the struggle to hold the Assad regime accountable and protect human rights more broadly. Germany’s recent decision to charge two former Syrian secret service officers with crimes against humanity is an important step towards justice for the atrocities committed by the regime. The arrest in France of the former spokesman of Islamic fundamentalist militia Jaysh al-Islam, which is charged with numerous human rights violations, is also a positive step. Europeans must continue their efforts to ensure that the main perpetrators of state torture under the Assad regime, and all war criminals in Syria, are brought to justice. The EU should also fund and assist the work of Syrian democratic activists who have documented the uprising against the regime, partly to preserve their memory for future generations.

The EU should prevent any reconstruction process from falling under the umbrella of the Syrian state in a way that would threaten to reinforce demographic engineering in territories once held by the opposition (a dynamic driven by political and socio-economic motives rather than sectarian ones). The regime centres this process, which it has already begun, on campaigns of forced displacement, the eviction of the territories’ original residents, and the enactment of laws that cement such activity. Such laws considerably deter and block refugees from returning to Syria. From this perspective, European sanctions that aim to counter these dynamics are positive, as are those that target businessmen close to the Syrian regime who try to profit from the spoils of war.

That said, Europeans should question the effectiveness of the deep and wide sanctions they have imposed on Syria. Europe has to take measures to alleviate the risk that sanctions will harm ordinary Syrians, productive sectors of the economy, and reconstruction efforts that are not tied to regime objectives. Europeans should, moreover, continue to fund humanitarian programmes in Syria designed to alleviate the dire socio-economic crisis in the country – albeit while ensuring that such support does not pass through regime networks.

Anas Joudeh, Nation Building Movement, Syria

It’s clear that we can’t talk about a Syrian peace and stability process without also discussing proactive European and US roles. The Russians have managed to bring the military situation on the ground to the point in which a stable political process can start if – and only if – there are serious partners at the negotiating table. Without this, these Russian efforts could be in vain. Serious partners are those who not only want to be engaged with the process but are willing to lend it legitimacy and international recognition. Indeed, Russia needs a viable alternative to the failed Astana process.

This is the essence of the European role, which should be more important than that of a mere aid donor – regardless of the many European statements about the need to “see” a credible peace process under way. When Europeans ask to “see” in this way, they are distancing themselves from the planning and implementation of the process, hoping others will act while they avoid getting their hands dirty.

From the narrow prospective of their own security interests, European countries – mainly Germany, France, and Italy – should actively participate in efforts to create a positive outcome in Syria, working alongside Russia and, later, the Syrian government (regardless of who is in power). This process should promote security, justice, and wider social participation in decision-making, preparing the ground for a meaningful political solution.

Of course, Europe has a very narrow margin of manoeuvre, especially given the blind US “maximum pressure” approach to Syria. But proactive European engagement should now focus on gradually implementing a common and clear understanding of UNSC Resolution 2254, which consists of national dialogue, a new constitution, and monitored elections. Europeans need to accept that there is no new “governing body” that will create the environment for these steps. Instead, the current Syrian authorities will do so – together with the opposition and civil society.

To support this process, Europeans should: create a new communication group between the Astana process and members of the Syria Small Group (excluding the United States); initially focus on issues such as civil society, local decentralisation, the fate of detainees, and legal reform; and use EU states with diplomatic representation in Damascus to verify that the necessary conditions and agreements have been met. They could also support and encourage dialogue between the opposition, civil society, and government loyalists in Syria, while pressing the UN to include other opposition forces in the currently unrepresentative Constitutional Committee.

These measures are essential to preparing the ground for a meaningful political process that can preserve the Syrian state, creating an inclusive and lasting peace.

Myriam Youssef, Researcher, Syria

Syrians who took to the streets in 2011 dreamt of a free, democratic, and socially just country. They looked northwards to the European model under which citizens achieved democracy after a long struggle. Despite all the complexities of the last nine years, many Syrians continue to aspire to that model, but they feel let down by Europe. They believe that Europe is still hesitant about playing a larger role in the region, and in Syria particularly.

I realise that there is no magic solution to Syrians’ problems. But I still hope that the international community, especially Europeans, can play a stronger role in Syria – whether this be through political negotiations, humanitarian operations, or involvement in a recovery phase that the country has yet to reach.

Today, Syrians need aid to help them rebuild their lives. The Syrian middle class is struggling to survive; the merchant class – comprising industrialists and young entrepreneurs who might drive positive change and recovery – has been crushed and is struggling to re-emerge due to the country’s isolation and lack of resources, opportunities, and infrastructure. I believe that helping young Syrians who are still in the country work and live in dignity, and helping lift Syrian society out of the effects of war, is extremely important. Here, strengthening Syrian civil society is essential. I dream about an inclusive and independent civil society that has the power to change the country. Syrians deserve this – and European countries still have the power to help us reach this dream.

I recognise how important sanctions can be in exerting pressure on the Syrian regime. However, the reality that Syrians live with every day is that that most, but not all, of these sanctions aren’t serving their purpose. The regime and its wide network of beneficiaries are still able to find ways to navigate around them. Meanwhile, some of these sanctions are negatively affecting our daily lives. For example, they have made it very hard and expensive to acquire fuel for cooking and heating, as well as medical supplies, because of restrictions on imports. Sanctions that affect the wider population need to be eased to help alleviate the unimaginable suffering of the majority of the population, while Europe needs to strengthen – in a way that cannot be manipulated – the targeted sanctions that really pressure those who are killing people and looting the country’s resources.

More than 80 percent of the Syrian population is living beneath the poverty line and in need of humanitarian aid. But any EU-backed humanitarian programme should come with conditions and monitoring, given the endemic corruption and manipulation of distribution that diverts aid away from those who need it most. European support – whether it be for humanitarian, recovery, or reconstruction purposes – should be conditioned on the attainment of people’s rights, including those to property.

This article is a project by ECFR's Middle East and North Africa programme.

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

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