It is time for Europe to re-examine how it chooses to treat Syria. After eight years of a brutal conflict that has ripped apart a society, destroyed a country and forced millions to flee their homes, the outcome the West was hoping for – the downfall of the regime – has not yet materialized. And nor will it. Rather, the Syrian government, headed by Bashar Al-Assad, has survived, albeit battered and scathed.
So far, Europe’s approach toward Syria has been limited to the imposition of sanctions – as a policy, rather than a tool – and little else. This has allowed Europe to feel it is doing something – anything, really – to punish the regime, first for the brutality employed during the war and then for winning the war. This, it has done at a low cost, without engaging practically with the reality on the ground. The fact that EU policymakers still hope the application of sanctions and increasing economic pressure will either pressure the regime to offer concessions at Geneva talks, bring the regime to its knees or force the population into mass popular protests, displays a woeful misunderstanding of the Syrian government’s ability to survive. Much like it survived the war due to its “long breath” – the ability to withstand the pressure of war longer than its enemies – coupled with the unwavering military and financial support of its allies, the regime is determined to survive this new war. And it will do so at any cost. This will not result in a stable outcome, but it will equally not result in the regime’s reform or dislodgement.
Meanwhile, Europe’s areas of concerns – broadly speaking, refugees, migration, security and terrorism – persist. And even among EU states there is a divergent set of views on what to do with Syria based on their own interests and priorities.
The situation today inside Syria is grim. Entire neighborhoods remain devastated. The Western-imposed crippling economic siege and fuel embargo, which brought the country to a standstill over the winter months, is very painfully suffocating a population that is still suffering from the wounds of war. Inflation has sky-rocketed to rates not witnessed even during the worst months of fighting, and today over 80 percent of the population live below the poverty line.
The West has no entry points for leverage. Its resilience and stabilization programs in non-government-controlled areas are failing, and it has no confidence in the United Nations or other actors on the ground. This gridlock is, thus, fueling the only option: sanctions.
Sanctions are carpet-bombing the economy; civil society is suffering; social services are being degraded; and assassinations in the south are on the rise. The government, for its part, is diligently working on cultivating relationships with other countries to extract investments, while also further solidifying its dependence on its allies, Russia and Iran, to survive this phase. It is relying on both the resilience and the fear of the population to remain in place. Meanwhile, corruption and government mismanagement continue unabated, war profiteers are flourishing and reconstruction remains elusive as luxury development projects – mind bogglingly – are prioritized over infrastructure.
The EU and US are piling on sanctions to force economic stagnation to the maximum, in an effort to create better negotiating conditions. But because of the staying power of the regime, they won’t achieve that aim. Worse, they are exacerbating the security conditions.
A collapsed state would lead to the “Somalization” of Syria: a broken country run by competing militias occupying different pockets of the country. With no central state, any semblance of a social contract will disappear, a new migration crisis will ensue and Syria will face another catastrophic humanitarian disaster.
EU diplomats are concerned that removing sanctions effectively rewards Al-Assad and the regime. But if Europe wants to address its own areas of concern, it should recognize that applying sanctions — in lieu of a pragmatic strategy that takes account of the reality on the ground – will only yield counterproductive results. Refugees are not returning to Syria, and will not as long as the government remains under siege and cannot provide economic stability. In fact, those who chose to remain in the country and who endured eight years of war are now looking to leave as economic conditions worsen – a situation that will have a direct impact on the future of Europe as Syrians look beyond the nation’s hostile neighbors for the promise of economic stability and settlement.
A stable Syria is in Europe’s best interest. This means a strong central state, an effective government, a stable economy and working infrastructure that can support the millions of civilians. Europe can still calibrate an approach that would facilitate stabilization in Syria, protect and promote the wellbeing of Syrians and tackle its own concerns – without necessarily compromising its moral argument against the regime. It should engage with Syrian civil society, guilds, non-governmental organizations, trade unions and local administrations.
Just as importantly, the EU should seek out Syrian parliamentary politicians who can help create space for economic and civil reform while also ensuring their own interests are addressed. Rather than block and vilify international and local non-governmental organizations that are working to support the basic needs of the most vulnerable in government-controlled areas, donors and EU member states should instead extend their support to these groups to prevent any further deterioration in the already perilous condition of the population. The alternative is to further impoverish the Syrian people, forcing them to turn to the regime just to survive.
As it stands, Europe has little negotiating power with the regime. Not now and not in any conceivable future. But it is within its powers to change that. And to do so, it must pivot away from imposing sanctions from afar, and engage on the ground.
Nour Samaha is a researcher and analyst based between Beirut and London. As a journalist, she has covered the Middle East for over a decade, producing in-depth reports and investigative stories for The Intercept, Politico and Foreign Policy, among others. She has also produced policy briefs for institutions such as the European Council of Foreign Relations.