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The role of the EU in the Syrian conflict

As a new round of Geneva talks is under way, the EU should ensure that the outcome is not merely the result of US and Russian talks.

At the June Summit, which will take place after the UK Referendum, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, will present the results of her global review of external strategy. As part of the review process, the Human Security Study Group, at the LSE, which is convened by Mary Kaldor and Javier Solana, has presented a report entitled From Hybrid Peace to Human Security: Rethinking the EU Strategy Towards Conflict together with twelve background research papers .


Conflicts are at the sharp end of contemporary crises. Refugees, extremist ideologies, criminality and predation are all produced in conflict. Contemporary conflicts are sometimes known as ‘hybrid wars’ or ‘new wars’ in which classic distinctions between public and private, government/regular and rebel/irregular, and internal and external break down. They are best understood not as legitimate contests of wills (the twentieth century idea of war) but as a degenerate social condition in which armed groups mobilise sectarian and fundamentalist sentiments and construct a predatory economy through which they enrich. Identifying ways to address violent conflict could open up strategies for dealing with broader issues.


In this special openDemocracy series, the Human Security Study Group outlines the main conclusions of our report in our introductory essay together with six essays based on some of the background papers. These essays include: an analysis of the conceptual premises of the Global Review (Sabine Selchow); three essays on specific conflict zones – Syria (Rim Turkmani), Ukraine (Tymofiy Mylovanov), the Horn of Africa (Alex de Waal); the importance of the EU’s justice instrument (Iavor Rangelov); and how EU cyber security policy is human rights focused rather than state focused (Genevieve Schmeder and Emmanuel Darmois).

Germany Syria talks. Joint stroll prior to meeting of Foreign Ministers of Germany and France with UN special envoy for Syria and Head of the Higher Negotiations Cttee. May, 2016. Ferdinand Ostrop / Press Association. All rights reserved.

The EU rightly identified in its 2007 Syria strategy paper that “Syria is a key factor in regional stability and plays a pivotal role as a transit country between the EU and the Middle East”. Yet, this did not stop the EU from rushing into unwarranted political and economic measures in the early months of the Syrian conflict that hindered its ability to influence the process. Consequently, as the Syrian crisis escalated to severely affecting Europe, the EU found itself in a position unable to play a significant role in resolving the conflict.

Although the Syrian conflict developed into a very complex combination of revolution, Syrian armed conflict, proxy war and terrorism, the roots of this conflict remain the long-standing political oppression and injustice which initiated the public resentment. Most of the actions taken by external powers did not help in easing this political oppression. But remarkably, the Cessation of Hostilities agreement which was agreed by Russia and the US in February 2016 without any Syrians present in the meeting managed to bring relative calm to the country for more than two months and saved thousands of lives.

This is enough of an indicator that the US vs. Russia level of this conflict is very significant. Yet it is neither Russia nor the US that suffered the most from the consequences of the war in Syria.  It is the EU that suffered from the increased security threat, terrorism and the refugee crises, and it is taking a lead in supporting and funding the humanitarian programmes responding to the “world's largest humanitarian crisis since World War II”. The EU, as Commission and Member States, covered over €5 billion of the humanitarian bill. In addition, over €3 billion were pledged at the London donor conference in February 2016.

“The world is not only Europe”

Prior to the conflict the EU had rather extensive relations with Syria, and through the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and the European Neighbourhood Policy was applying a range of instruments, with some limited effect, aimed at bringing about political and economic reform. These efforts were abandoned shortly after the conflict began, and instead the EU focused on the application of sanctions, scaling down its mission in Damascus, and taking extreme political measures that led to the loss of political leverage.

The Syrian foreign minister responded in June 2011 by announcing in a statement to the media, “We will forget that there is Europe on the map,” and promised to look “eastward and southward and in every direction that extends its hands to Syria. The world is not only Europe.” Indeed, shortly afterwards, Syria did suspend its membership in the Union for the Mediterranean, and it did look in other directions for support, mainly from Iran, Russia and China. This served only to increase the leverage of these countries over the Syrian government and increase polarisation at all levels. The theory of change that assumes that the regime is going to change its behaviour should such measures be imposed has not only proved to be wrong, but to the contrary, these measures produced the opposite outcome. 

August 18, 2011 saw a turning point in EU policy towards Syria. Following “large-scale use of military force in the cities of Hama, Deir al-Zour and Lattakia,” the EU announced, “The President's promises of reform have lost all credibility as reforms cannot succeed under permanent repression. The EU notes the complete loss of Bashar al-Assad's legitimacy in the eyes of the Syrian people and the necessity for him to step aside.” This announcement seems to have been orchestrated, as the US President Obama, the British Prime Minister David Cameron, the French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, all demanded that Assad immediately resign on the same day. The logic behind the move was that if other leaders followed this move then it would force President Assad to resign. Hilary Clinton commented on this move saying, “If Turkey says it, if King Abdullah says it, if other people say it, there is no way the Assad regime can ignore it.”

All these political and economic measures were taken before any specific strategy towards Syria was outlined. A new strategy for Syria was only outlined two years later in June 2013.  

Justice and stability

What has been much needed for Syria throughout are policies aimed at improving the situation of ordinary people, providing them with much needed protection and countering the structural dynamics of the conflict. Some of the EU policies, however, did just the opposite. The sanctions that targeted the general economy worsened the conditions of ordinary affected people, and accelerated the development of the predatory war economy instead of pressuring the Syrian regime, which found alternative ways to overcome the impacts of sanctions. 

One of the areas that Europe can play a key role in bringing stability in Syria is justice. For sustainable peace and stability in Syria and for the underlying political and social structures that gave rise to the conflict to be addressed, justice is an absolute key necessity, for the conflict is deeply rooted in many layers and forms of injustice, grievance and inequality.

The EU announced commitment to justice and accountability in Syria, and supported several transitional justice programmes run by civil society. However, its role has faced a ‘dilemma’, torn between seeking accountability and ending the conflict. This became apparent in the last six months after the beginning of the Vienna peace process for Syria. The EU became a member of what is known as the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), which is the catalyst of the process. The ISSG issued two statements in Vienna at the end of 2015. Neither statement includes any reference to the need for commitment to accountability, justice, and transitional justice mechanisms. These statements later became the backbone of UNSC resolution 2254 issued on 19 December 2015, which also excluded any mention of justice and accountability.  

The EU has regularly called for the respect of International Humanitarian Law in Syria, and the protection of civilians, and condemned all indiscriminate attacks on civilians. Similarly, it called for allowing unrestricted and constant humanitarian access to ensure safe delivery of humanitarian aid and medical care to all people in need. However, like most international actors the EU did not take enough concrete steps to guarantee the implementation of these calls.

Civil society in Syria

The rise of civil society in Syria is one of the most positive things that has happened in Syria during the last five years. Together with Local Administrative Councils (LACs) it was able to fill the gap of the total or semi collapse of the state in different parts of Syria. The EU helped fund these civic actors in opposition-controlled areas and supported programmes that promoted good governance in Local Administrative Councils, this having helped to enable the right actors and promote a positive trend that empowers civic actors over armed entities.

In areas with mixed security control, the EU had less influence. The end of 2013 and beginning of 2014 witnessed many local ceasefires in Syria in areas of mixed security control, typically opposition-controlled areas surrounded by a government-controlled one. Although these local agreements arose amid very bad conditions including sieges, many led to an improvement in the humanitarian situation. The EU played no direct role in the ceasefires. In April 2014 it issued a statement criticizing these ceasefires: “The EU is concerned with cases of forced surrender, labelled as local ceasefires, imposed by the regime through starvation sieges. The EU calls on the regime to allow effective third-party monitoring of ceasefires to sustain them, to allow safe and unhindered evacuations of civilians on a voluntary basis and the passage of humanitarian convoys and personnel.”

In fact, the Syrian Government used the tactics of sieges against civilians in many areas to force their submission to its conditions. In some cases, as in Mouadamiya, however, not all the ceasefires were cases of surrender: but even where they did mean surrender, they provided an opportunity to help civilians when nothing else worked. The EU rightly identified third party monitoring as a key factor in sustaining these ceasefires, yet it is not known that it did anything to provide this monitoring. For example, it did not push for a mandate from the UNSC for a new UN monitoring mission after the last one was pulled out in 2013, neither did they send a monitoring mission from the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy.

A new round of Geneva talks

As a new round of Geneva talks are under way, the EU should ensure that the outcome is not merely the result of US and Russian talks, which could well translate into creating further future conflicts that could affect Europe. The talks would not have ended up in Geneva had the process been “Syrian led” as the UNSC 2254 claims it should be. Yet the EU could do much to ensure a more Syria-led process, because only such a process will set Syria on the path to peace and democracy.

The EU could play a role in ensuring that the transition in Syria heads towards democracy. Among the many concrete measures the EU could bring to this table is to equip the negotiations with economic tools. All the EU instruments such as the Association agreement, economic relations, the bilateral cooperation programmes under European Neighbourhood Policy, and partnership in the EU's regional programs together with the loan operations and technical assistance by the European Investment Bank and the lifting of economic sanctions: all of these mechanisms can be introduced as gradual incentives in Geneva with the aim of encouraging compliance.   This could have the triple benefits of: i) legalising the formal economy, which is a crucial step to combatting the war economy, ii) enhancing the humanitarian and economic situation of the Syrian people who are hit hardest by these measures, and iii) lifting these measures as an incentive to the Syrian government to comply with specific human rights measures, such as ending the shelling of civilian areas and releasing detainees. The EU could also play a role in ensuring that accountability is central to any transition plan for Syria.

In the meantime, the EU should continue the valuable work it did in supporting local processes and newly-emerging legitimate local agencies, particularly the LACs, and by placing a strong emphasis on supporting good governance. The EU should play a pivotal role not only on supporting civil society and the local civic authorities in Syria, but also should put its weight behind making them an essential part of the solution, and ensuring their presence at Syrian-related decision-making tables. Only their presence would truly ensure a “Syrian led process” and a new democratic neighbour for Europe.

About the author

Rim Turkmani is a Senior Research Fellow at LSE working on the war economy in Syria and the role of Syrian civil society in brokering peace and creating stability from the bottom up. She is active in Syrian civil society circles, working on promoting peace and democratic transition in Syria. She is an astrophysicist by training, previous Dorothy Hodgkin fellow of the Royal Society and writer/curator on the history of Islamic science and culture.


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