Europe risks making a deadly mistake in Syria.
As the country’s civil war turns ever more decisively in favor of President Bashar al-Assad, European countries have slowly begun to reach out to the dictator’s violent regime.
In a significant step, Italy earlier this month announced that it is considering reopening its embassy in Damascus. Rome’s decision is the first shift by one of the big Western European states. It runs squarely counter to the stated EU position, championed by France and the U.K., to keep Assad isolated and sanctioned.
European governments have long touted — often, without much credibility — their ability to leverage reconstruction funding for change in Syria, but the recent moves reveal a growing risk that Europe’s common position regarding Assad could collapse into irrelevance. An Italian shift will not single-handedly move the wider European line, including on sanctions, but it points to the prospect of an eventual unraveling.
Driving the rapprochement are shifts in the facts on the ground. U.S. President Donald Trump has announced a rapid troop withdrawal. Gulf Arab states are restoring ties with Damascus, and jihadist forces are advancing in Idlib, thereby likely justifying regime designs on the province. Assad’s victory is looking like it will be even more conclusive than expected.
The reality is that European positioning was shifting even before Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops.
Against this backdrop, Europeans need to quickly shape a coherent position that responds to the new reality. Ultimately, there is a case for limited re-engagement if Europeans want to secure some lingering gains for Syrians and their own refugee and security interests.
But this must be done carefully, in a way that ties pragmatism to ongoing principles. Incremental decisions by individual countries will push Europe down a slippery slope of re-engagement that will play completely to Assad’s advantage, offering him cost-free re-legitimization.
EU states must work together to ensure that they extract some gains for any move in this direction.
The reality is that European positioning was shifting even before Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops. Rome’s announcement follows a visit by the Polish deputy foreign minister to Damascus and a trip by the Czech foreign minister in August. While Prague has maintained an ambassador in Syria throughout the conflict and the trip was driven by a humanitarian aim, it was the first senior European ministerial visit since the conflict began.
The EU this week announced new Syria sanctions, but in a notable shift, some member countries pushed for the introduction of sunset provisions to give them an expiry date.
The shift in Europe’s position has been accompanied by signs of widening normalization. In October, Jordan reopened its border with Syria, and in December the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain restored diplomatic ties. Syria’s intelligence chief is reported to have visited Saudi Arabia in early January, possibly in anticipation of a coming shift in Riyadh’s position. Syria may also soon be readmitted to the Arab League. These states are now more focused on diluting Iranian and Turkish influence than on regime change.
Trump’s decision has accelerated this dynamic. While intra-administration pushback may delay the pullout, the outcome of this debate is almost irrelevant. No one believes in Washington’s capacity to act as a long-term strategic actor in Syria, and most players are making plans that work around the U.S.
Assad looks likely to exploit Trump’s decision to make a deal with the Kurds — formerly protected by U.S. forces — to restore Damascus’ authority over the northeast and stop Turkey from entering Syria.
In time, Assad could strike a deal with Turkey based on shared cooperation against the Kurds. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan holds a deep personal antipathy toward Assad, but Ankara might nonetheless see an eventual rapprochement with Damascus as a way to squash Kurdish ambitions and counterbalance the influence of returning Arab Gulf states.
The bottom line is that Assad is increasingly coming to be seen, even by erstwhile enemies, as the central vehicle through which they can compete with one another for influence. Some officials in Israel even view a reconstituted Assad as the best means of restoring order to its north and weakening Iran’s presence in the country.
This is a remarkable shift that Assad will exploit to cement his position. While Assad faces significant internal challenges, he faces fewer constraints to regaining control of the whole country. He will also have more options to help drive economic growth, including access to oil resources now controlled by the Kurds. Gulf states could also provide reconstruction funding, despite the threat of U.S. sanctions.
It’s against this backdrop that the EU must urgently shape a more effective response. The bloc’s leverage may be limited, but Europeans can still do more to shape a better outcome in Syria.
Rather than allowing individual countries to move forward unilaterally, European governments should work together to maximize their leverage over Assad — who does want international legitimization of his victory.
What Europeans can do, however, is make it clear to those like Italy that Assad must not be given what he wants for free.
Doing so has little chance of forcing profound political reform in Syria. But Europeans can still seek to channel the regime's desire for Western political re-engagement to secure still-important, lower-level gains. These could include access to detainees; guarantees against arrests, forced conscription and property seizures; and the opening of unimpeded aid channels, including a mechanism through which local bodies can act as direct implementors of stabilization support. Europeans should also focus on ensuring that any regime assault on Idlib does not result in another bloodbath.
Europeans trying to maintain a hard line against Assad must realize they cannot hope to gain at the peace table what they so recently declined to fight for on the battlefield. What they can do, however, is make it clear to those like Italy that Assad must not be given what he wants for free.
This will do more to address core European interests than non-conditional re-engagement.
This article originally appeared on 24 January 2019 on Politico Europe.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.