The EU’s engagement in Syria and the importance of the Conference on “Supporting the future of Syria and the region” (Part II)
On 24th and 25th April 2018, in Brussels, the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN) co-chaired the second Conference on “Supporting the future of Syria and the region”, in order to remember the role that 57 countries, 10 regional organizations and 19 UN agencies could have to contribute to economic, political and humanitarian aid for the future of Syria and the stability of the neighboring countries of the region. This essay, which was published in two parts, seeks to help understand the measures taken by the EU in Syria. In the first part of the article the background of the Syrian conflict, the EU policies and the outcomes of the first Conference on “Supporting the future of Syria and the region” was showed (cfr http://www.eu-logos.org/?p=22839, 30/05/2018). Instead, in this article, firstly, the current geopolitical situation in Syria will be explained, considering the events of 2018. Secondly, the experts’ opinion on European approach in Syria will be analyzed. Finally, the results of the last Conference will be highlighted, in order to understand which kind of policy the EU has decided to adopt and its real impact for the resolution of the Syrian conflict.
1.The escalation of the conflict in 2018
In January 2018, President Bashar al-Assad’s army started advancing against the Islamic State (IS): the governmental forces, supported by Iran and Russia, conquered some villages in the northeast of Hama and in the region of Idlib. On 27th January, the Syrian army broke through the jihadist defensive, regaining the territories lost in 2012 when the IS managed to settle the area. This military milestone did not have only a symbolic purpose: this area could be used to facilitate Assad’s army for the revival of all the region of Idlib.
1.Image – Syria
While the regime started to fight against the IS, the Turkish army invaded the Syrian Afrin region, in the Aleppo Governorate. Indeed, the Ankara army announced the launch of a military operation called Olive branch, to neutralize the Syrian Kurdish militias (Democratic Union Party – PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), considered as terrorists by Turkey. The Bashar al-Assad’s regime responded to the Turkish military invasion by threatening to also set up a military counter-offensive. This is why an agreement between the Syrian government and the Kurdish militias was made, supported by Iran and Russia (the two main allies of Assad), in order to stop the Ankara army.
Simultaneously, the regime continued to regain IS’s territories: on 13th February, it arrived in the Idlib province and then in Douma (the last area near Damascus controlled by the rebels supported by Saudi Arabia). After two months, on 7th April, during an air strike over Douma, the regime used chemical weapons, that caused at least 100 dead and a thousand injured. This attack provoked an international reaction: that same day, the United States (US) and eight other United Nations Security Council (UNSC) countries (Britain, France, Poland, Holland, Sweden, Kuwait, Peru and Côte d’Ivoire) called for an emergency meeting, accusing Assad for using chemical weapons. Indeed, one week after Douma’s chemical gas attacks, US President Donald Trump ordered a series of bombings in Syria, along with France and Britain. On 14th April, the three countries launched more than 100 missiles against what they affirmed were Syrian chemical weapons facilities. The Pentagon confirmed that the strikes, which began at 4 am (Syrian time), involved planes and ship-launched missiles and identified three targets: a scientific research centre in Damascus, a chemical weapons storage facility in Homs, and another storage site nearby. For Assad, this attack increased the determination of Syria and of the Syrian people to continue fighting against rebels and terrorism.
2. Image – Syria
On 22nd April, the Syrian regime launched an attack in the south of Damascus, to regain control of the last shreds of territory in the hands of the opposition. On 21st May, the Syrian army, loyal to President Assad, took full control of all areas around the capital Damascus, for the first time since 2012. The announcement came after the troops evacuated the IS’s militias.
In 2018, actually, the conflict has changed the past equilibrium. Thanks to the support of Russia and Iran, the Assad regime managed to conquer most of the territories previously occupied by the IS. However, the use of chemical weapons in Douma provoked a direct military reaction, for the first time since the beginning of the conflict. Although it is clear that the EU, as an organization, supports the moderate opposition against the Assad government and favors a political transition based on dialogue, for the first three states (whose one European) have openly let understand their strategic and political position by intervening precisely in the Syrian territory. The external interference within the Syrian conflict until now has only provoked a chain reaction that has further fueled the violence of the conflict. This is why the EU has chosen to adopt an approach based on political dialogue between the parties, economic and financial aid, and humanitarian support. However, several experts questioned the impact that this approach has (or could have) for the resolution of the conflict, considering, on one hand, the difficulties related to the complex Syrian situation, and on the other, the actual EU capabilities to solve the conflict.
2.The experts’ opinions
The advance of the Syrian army and the loss of territory by the IS are considered by the regime as political and strategic successes. Thanks to the support of Russia, President Assad managed to conquer many areas this year that could allow him to install new military bases in order to counter both the Free Syrian Army and the IS. However, as highlighted in the previous article, the conflict has caused huge migratory flows toward Europe. The EU has never expressed its intention to act militarily, even if France participated in the missile intervention together with the US and UK. Actually, the EU has always supported an approach based on political transition and dialogue between different parts of the conflict to achieve stability. This is why, over the years, the EU has always renewed its economic and humanitarian support to meet the needs of refugees by allocating large sums to support the Syrian civilian population involved in the conflict. However, according to the experts in European politics and crisis management, the situation in Syria is very complex from an economic, social, political and cultural point of view. This is why it seems difficult to measure the actual impact of the European approach for the conflict resolution.
According to Pierre Vimont, Senior Fellow at Carnegie Europe on the European Neighborhood policy and transatlantic relations, the EU took into consideration the severity of the Syrian conflict too late. In its essay “Migration in Europe: bridging the solidarity gap”, published in 2016, he underlined that the EU focused more attention on the emergence coming from the south instead of considering that coming from the east. He stressed that the migrants’ flow from the Middle East introduced a new reality from which the EU cannot escape. In 2015, 800,000 people flocked to the European territory in less than eight months, marking new routes involving Turkey, Greece and the Western Balkan in order to head to the heart of the EU. However, the EU has not shown an ability to anticipate and adapt itself to the circumstances that have evolved. Contrary to the migratory flow observed in the central Mediterranean and essentially inspired by economic factors, this new migrant flight had a political nature. This is why controlling it was very difficult. Indeed, according to the author, the internal differences and the different perspectives of each member state have slowed down the adoption of a comprehensive approach. For this reason, the EU and its member states have to adopt an approach focused on flexibility and solidarity, developing a common project that is not based solely on economic aid, but also on structural policies within the EU.
3.Image – Slovenia, Serbia and Croatia move to close migrants route
According to Marc Otte, former Belgian diplomat, Senior Associate Fellow at the Egmont Institute, Belgian Special Envoy for Syria and vice-President of the European Institute for Peace, for the EU the real difficulty in order to adopt an impact is linked to the complexity of the Syrian political situation. The conflict, started as a popular peaceful protest, turned into armed resistance as a result of the brutal repression by the Assad regime. The war was fueled by regional and international players who support either the regime or the rebels. According to the author, the crisis in Syria is not just a war between Sunnis and Shiites, but a confrontation between Arabs and Persians, in which religion is an ideology to pursue political aims. This confrontation refers to a collective memory that dates back to 14 centuries, when Arab conquests came to destroy the Persian empire that had dominated the region for centuries, far beyond the boundaries of what is commonly called the Middle East today. Within this confrontation Europe is absent in a strategic way, although it is hit frontally by conflicts in its neighborhood. According to the expert, Europe’s inability to change the status quo ultimately proved to be a disappointment and a threat to the European model itself. If Europe wants a voice in reducing instability it needs to become a strategic player, instead of being a spectator. The EU should invest its money to create the conditions for the post-war reconstruction. Therefore, a common vision is needed in order to establish a frank dialogue with regional partners, including the most problematic ones. Without such decisive and incisive diplomacy, statements of principle and good intentions will remain useless.
According to Richard Youngs, Senior fellow in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program and EU foreign policy on issues of international democracy for the Carnegie Europe, European donors should persist with a “localist” approach in Syria, generating an inclusive notion of democratic citizenship rather than just support the liberal-moderate opposition. Indeed, in his essay “Bolstering Europe’s localist approach to Syria”, he underlined that the EU is adopting an approach based on a sustainable political solution. According to the author, this type of approach has its limits, since considering the events of 2018 (the escalation of violence, the increasingly aggressive policy of the regime and the Turkish invasion): it is difficult to say that the EU initiatives can be efficient. Richard Youngs does not disapprove the « localist » approach, but his purpose. An increasing number of conflict resolution experts argued that the EU priority must be to strengthen local governance capabilities. So the EU should play on two levels: on the one hand, at the macro level, favoring the reforms that guarantee a political transition, and on the other, at the micro level, reinforcing local policies. According to the author, the EU has to use its programs at the local level not simply to support moderate opposition but, more generally, to generate an inclusive notion of democratic citizenship.
3.The Conference on “Supporting the future of Syria and the region”
On 24th and 25th April 2018, the EU and the UN co-chaired the second Brussels Conference on “Supporting the future of Syria and the region”. It hosted 57 countries, 10 regional organisations and 19 UN agencies. During the conference Syrian Civil Society Organisations from across Syria and neighboring countries discussed their role in the future of Syria with the EU and the Office for the Special Envoy for Syria. The EU expressed its intention to continue to work with Syrian civil society as essential stakeholders in order to reach a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Considering the economical aspect, participants pledged to invest € 3.5 billion for 2018, as well as multi-year pledges of € 2.7 billion for 2019-2020, in funding for humanitarian, resilience and development activities. In addition, some international financial institutions and donors announced around €17.2 billion in loans, of which elements are on concessional terms. Regarding the political point of view, participants gave their full support to the Special Envoy’s efforts to facilitate, in consultation with all concerned, the implementation of the Sochi Final Statement (as circulated to the Security Council on 14 February 2018) for the establishment of a Constitutional Committee for Syria in Geneva, under UN auspices and in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015). They also reiterated the importance of preventing and combating terrorism in Syria in accordance with relevant UNSC resolutions expressing their strong condemnation of the use of chemical weapons by any party to the conflict and under any circumstances.
Considering the support at the regional level, participants committed to remaining fully engaged, in a spirit of partnership, in supporting neighboring countries to address the challenges they face. They agreed to support reforms, longer-term development in a sustainable manner, further investments to foster inclusive economic growth and social development in Lebanon and Jordan, including through concessional financing, blending of grants with loans and the use of the EU External Investment Plan in cooperation with the support of European Financial Institutions and the private sector (that is € 560 million). Furthermore, the EU reconfirmed that it will honor its commitment in the EU-Turkey Statement of 18th March 2016 to mobilize an additional sum of € 3 billion. During the press conference, Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy / Vice-President of the Commission, said “The solution to this war can only come from meaningful political talks between the Syrian parties, under the UN auspices. It can only be a political negotiated solution […] The political process, the path towards peace and reconciliation is and will not be easy – we are not naïve, we know that well. But believing in what is right does not mean being naïve – it means contributing to the solution. And we believe it is the only realistic way to achieving a sustainable peace, a united, free, democratic and inclusive Syria that belongs to all Syrians and to which all Syrians can belong. […]Later today, we will listen to some representatives of the Syrian civil society who are here with us”.
The Conference on “Supporting the future of Syria and the region” in April re-launched the EU’s commitment to help the country. This time, in addition to humanitarian and economic commitment, the EU has been much more engaged in dialogue with civil society. Actually, it should not be denied that the EU, because of its nature and structure, cannot be a true strategic actor: both on the military and geopolitical levels the EU has its own limits. This translates into a commitment more consecrated to dialogue and economic aid as an external actor, adopting a « localist » approach, as stated by Richard Youngs. The conference proved that the EU is increasing its commitment to develop local governance by preparing the post-conflict reconstruction. Furthermore, some theses supported by Pierre Vimont and Marc Otte seem to be confirmed precisely in the light of the results of the conference. Indeed, the EU is still unable to adopt a comprehensive approach and adapt its structures in order to well manage migration flows. This, therefore, seems to justify the purpose that precisely because of internal political disagreements, it is easier to find an economic solution that can compensate for the imperfections related to the lack of solidarity, and a powerful diplomacy. However, in light of the results of the conference, the EU (together with the UN) is the most powerful actor providing humanitarian support both inside and outside the Syrian territory, while at the same time investing in civil society. If it is true that it is difficult to assess now the real impact that the EU approach has on the Syrian conflict resolution, it is also true that in the long term, once the conflict will be over, the impact will come to light, showing that in a conflict where different parties continue to fight on the ground and other states line up with one of them, the EU has managed to support the only real victims of the conflict, the civilians, with the means at its disposal.
Maria Elena Argano
For furher information:
 European Council Website, “Supporting the future of Syria and the region”: http://www.consilium.europa.eu/fr/meetings/international-ministerial-meetings/2018/04/24-25/
 Gli Occhi della Guerra Website, “L’esercito siriano ha riconquistato la base strategica di Abu-Duhur”: http://www.occhidellaguerra.it/lesercito-siriano-riconquistato-la-base-strategica-abu-duhur/.
 Milliyet Website: http://www.milliyet.com.tr/son-dakika-turkiye-rusya-ve-dunya-2519961/
 La Repubblica Website, « Erdogan annuncia l’inizio dell’attacco contro l’enclave curda di Afrin » : http://www.repubblica.it/esteri/2018/01/20/news/siria_erdogan_annuncia_l_inizio_dell_attacco_contro_l_enclave_curda_di_afrin-186915778/?refresh_ce/
 Il Post Website, “Le forze militari di Assad sono arrivate ad Afrin per aiutare i curdi contro i turchi”: https://www.ilpost.it/2018/02/23/afrin-assad-curdi-turchia/
 The Straitstimes Website, “Syria’s Idlib ISIS-free after surrender”: https://www.straitstimes.com/world/middle-east/syrias-idlib-isis-free-after-surrender-spokesman-monitor
 La Repubblica Website, “Siria, Douma sotto attacco”: http://www.repubblica.it/esteri/2018/04/08/news/siria_quaranta_persone_uccise_a_duma_si_sospetta_un_attacco_chimico-193284202/?ref=RHPPLF-BH-I0-C8-P3-S1.8-T2
 La Repubblica Website, “USA, Gb e Francia aaccano la Siria”: http://www.repubblica.it/esteri/2018/04/14/news/trump_ha_deciso_attacco_alla_siria-193809913,
 IAS Parliament Website, “Saving Syria’s Ghouta”: http://www.iasparliament.com/current-affairs/saving-syrias-ghouta
 Euronews Website, “Siria, nuovi raid a sud di Damasco”: http://it.euronews.com/2018/04/22/siria-nuovi-raid-a-sud-di-damasco-situazione-disperata-a-yarmouk
 TG24 Sky Website, “Siria, l’esrcito di Assad riprende il controllo totale di Damasco”: https://tg24.sky.it/mondo/2018/05/21/siria-esercito-controlla-damasco.html
 Carnegie Europe Website, “Migration in Europe : bridging the solidarity gap” http://carnegieeurope.eu/2016/09/12/migration-in-europe-bridging-solidarity-gap-pub-64546
 Egmont Institute Website, “The quest for a regional order in the Middle East”: http://www.egmontinstitute.be/the-quest-for-a-regional-order-in-the-middle-east/,
 Carnegie Europe Website, “Bolstering Europe’s localist approach”: https://carnegieeurope.eu/2018/04/04/bolstering-europe-s-localist-approach-to-syria-pub-75914
 European Council Website: http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/meetings/international-ministerial-meetings/2018/04/24-25/
 European Council Website, “Co-chair declaration”:http://www.consilium.europa.eu/media/34153/co-chair-declaration-fundraising.pdf,EU Logos