Every Western, Arab, or Russian official who has engaged with the Syrian conflict argues that, if only President Bashar al-Assad behaved differently, there would be a good chance of triggering a virtuous process in Syria. This, they acknowledge, would initiate a “realistic” political transition in Syria and lead to the gradual removal of Western sanctions on the country.
More than eight years ago, the European Union imposed its first set of sanctions on members of the Syrian regime and a select number of financial holdings and firms. The bloc did so as part of a strategy to isolate a government that had lost its legitimacy by committing serious human rights violations to crush a popular uprising. As Assad became increasingly reliant on Iranian-led surrogates in his fight for survival, Syria formed an integral part of Iran’s sphere of influence – and a growing number of his cronies appeared on European and American sanctions lists.
Western countries never took decisive action to prevent Assad and his allies from murdering hundreds of thousands of Syrians, but they vowed to prevent him from reaping the political benefits of his military campaign. Choking off the financial channels of the regime is the only instrument they are willing to use. No Syrian – be they on the opposition or loyalist side of the divide – wishes to see sanctions affect ordinary citizens.
All our families are suffering from the fall of the Syrian pound, dwindling salaries, and the soaring prices of basic goods – but an overwhelming majority of us fear a rehabilitation of the Syrian regime with its practices of systematic embezzlement and other criminal behaviour unchanged. What Western countries can hope to achieve through sanctions is neither regime change nor a change of behaviour on the part of Assad. Sanctions and the isolation of the Syrian regime and its cronies are a message to Russia, not to Assad. Assad – like Nicolae Ceausescu, Saddam Hussein, or Muammar Qaddafi before him – is likely to be the last one to see that even his closest allies and enablers have lost patience with him. Dictators are often oblivious to growing danger to their regimes.
Assad remains deaf to anyone’s advice to engage in confidence-building measures. He has refused to release any of the people – including 12,000 women and children – detained by his security services; his regime continues to make arbitrary arrests despite the pandemic, even while other governments (including that in Tehran) are releasing thousands of prisoners. The Constitutional Committee that took two years to form never started a discussion of the constitution itself – as Assad seemed to have instructed his delegation not to talk about the issue. When they try to estimate the prospects of progress in the Geneva negotiations, the Syrian opposition and successive UN special envoys to Syria have learnt to look for signs from Moscow rather than Damascus.
Russia may not have a viable solution to the Syrian conflict in the short term. In the last four years, the Russian military has worked to re-engineer the Syrian army and intelligence agencies, a process it has found to be more difficult than expected. Russia has also tried to bring a semblance of normalcy to the lives of some ordinary Syrians. One example of this is its recent decision to finance and directly oversee the repair of the electricity grid covering Damascus and its suburbs. But Assad chose to sell this newly recovered production capacity to Lebanon – leaving Syrians, including those who supported him throughout the war, with access to barely a few hours of electricity per day.
Russia is also frustrated with the discriminatory way in which the Syrian Red Crescent distributes humanitarian assistance – to the extent that, in some areas, it has deployed Russian military police to oversee the process. There are signs that Moscow is losing faith in Assad and fears a sudden collapse of the Syrian regime.
Russia now expresses its impatience with Assad publicly. Moscow recently unleashed a campaign of criticism in various government-controlled media outlets targeting Assad’s inner circle, denouncing corruption, and disseminating pseudo-opinion polls indicating Assad’s unpopularity. While it would be premature to read this as a prelude to the withdrawal of Russian support for Assad’s rule, the campaign certainly aims to, at the very least, signal his vulnerability and convey the message that Russian President Vladimir Putin will decide his fate. This is new. And Europeans ought to monitor such signals from the Russian establishment. The provision of relief to ordinary Syrians is Europe’s central concern – and rightly so. But it is, at best, the wrong time to allow Assad to dictate how much space (if any) Europeans will have to reach the population. This would only reinforce his belief that he remains invincible.
Under current constraints, there is no easy way of working around Assad to reach the Syrian population directly, without exposing it to danger. Regular contact with local communities, especially women and young people, in most areas of Syria confirms that the regime has restored its close surveillance of civil society. And the regime allows no group – not even a community-based women’s organisation – autonomous space to work or to receive money from abroad, let alone register as an NGO to operate legally.
It would be self-defeating for the EU to turn a blind eye to discriminatory practices in the name of realism.
EU institutions have a wealth of knowledge about Syria thanks to their broad network of partners among civil society organisations inside and outside the country, and the remarkable understanding of Syrian realities among EU staff. They watch for opportunities to work discreetly with certain groups under Assad’s radar, but they too suffer from the closure of space and a loss of civil society partners – whose activities almost came to a total halt as opposition-held territory fell to Assad’s forces. They know better than anyone that they have to support Syrian society despite Assad – rather than with his consent or through the channels he controls.
There is a desperate need for a fair distribution of humanitarian aid and basic infrastructure in Syria, but what Syrian communities crave most are employment opportunities that will help them recover some financial autonomy. Hardly any men of working age live in the areas recaptured by Assad’s forces. Former public sector workers (men and women) are banned from regaining their jobs, because they are unable to acquire the security clearance certificates demanded by the intelligence agencies. They know that they could purchase these permits with bribes to security officers, but this is only affordable for war profiteers – many of them former warlords with strong connections to the regime’s intelligence officers, with whom they shared the profits of trafficking into Syrian towns and cities under siege.
This brutal reality should guide the strategy of European leaders. The time is right for Europe to assert its position on the Syrian issue with greater self-confidence. European efforts to persuade Assad to behave differently have proven to be a waste of time. Europe should instead engage with Russia with greater determination. Unlike Assad, Putin understands the implications of an incremental process and conditionality – even if he continues to be a tough negotiator. Instead of distancing themselves from the US strategy and undermining their own positions, European governments should work closely with Washington to build on growing Russian frustration with Assad and increase their demands of Moscow.
Firstly, Europe should push Russia to admit that cross-border humanitarian assistance for Syria is a necessity. Western countries have a strong case to call for the renewal of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2165 in June for a full year, and for reopening crossings into Syria from Iraq and Jordan. Today, unlike in the past six years, these crossings would provide access to areas under government control – which raises questions about modes of aid distribution. While it is true that humanitarian assistance cannot be subject to conditions, international donors and organisations have a duty to ensure that the distributor of aid complies with basic international norms. Unfettered access to all areas of Syria for the UN and international NGOs is a legitimate demand – one that Moscow might accept.
It would be self-defeating for the EU to turn a blind eye to discriminatory practices in the name of realism. The bloc should be at the forefront of the diplomatic battle to secure the right for humanitarian organisations to administer aid directly – and to send European monitors to Syria, or rely on Syrian observers, whose safety would be Russia’s responsibility.
While pushing Russia to recognise its need for space to act and for guarantees, the EU should make full use of digital technology to collect real-time information on the ground. It is no secret that the regime forces organisations with an office in Damascus to comply with its restrictions on their movements and contacts, which seriously limits their scope for action. Digital communication has proved to be the best – and, arguably, the only effective – means of establishing direct, unhindered contact with civilians in Syria.
Throughout the conflict, Western actors were able to engage in dialogue and exchanges of know-how with Syrians living in the country. For instance, medical students conducted surgery on victims of bombings in besieged areas, guided via Skype by doctors in Paris or Detroit. Alongside its delegation office in Damascus, the EU should establish a virtual diplomatic facility with dedicated staff, who would continuously liaise with Syrian society. This approach would be modelled on the United States’ and other countries’ virtual embassies to Syria, which they created after closing their physical embassies in 2011.
Europe could also assess the capacity of Syria’s business community and the Syrian diaspora to support local groups in various areas. Naturally, European institutions cannot use Syrians’ personal networks to channel funds into the country. Instead, they should try to persuade Russia that, as they share its goal of restoring some normalcy to Syrians’ lives, the business community (aside from Assad’s sanctioned cronies) in Syria and abroad could be a useful intermediary if it can operate in safety.
Europe doesn’t hold Assad’s fate in its hands. Only Putin does. Until he decides that Assad’s time is up, Europe should encourage Russia to work around the Syrian regime, thereby empowering constructive actors within society. In this, Europe can begin with a shift in the narrative away from an illusory virtuous process of engagement with Assad through a ‘more for more’ approach. By acknowledging that cooperation and compromise are inimical to Assad’s mindset, Europe can move towards an assertive strategy commensurate with its unequalled potential to help ordinary Syrians.
Bassma Kodmani is an ECFR Council member and a member of the Syrian Constitutional Committee.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.