The time has come for European leaders to start seeking some smart ways to help the wider Syrian population, which would reflect the new geopolitical realities in the country, while Assad’s regime is still clinging to power, of course, with the support of Russian artillery. Money certainly can’t buy stability and peace (and happiness) for the Syrians, but it can help rebuilding the devastated country and facilitate the setting up of a sound economic base. But, first of all, the removal of some sanctions is needed, as these have, after all, not achieved the main stated objective, in particular removing the unsavory Assad regime.
As the current situation in the country shows, the regime holds onto its position stronger than ever before, so there might be no easy way to launch the process of political transformation, hoping it comes at a minimal cost. On the contrary, Europe must see the bigger picture under these complex circumstances and find a balance in how to help majority of Syrian people at the very least so that they can begin rebuilding their country and their own lives again. While long sidelined in the ongoing peace talks, with Russia at the steering wheel, European Union’s ability to provide economic assistance, through direct financial support, sanctions relief and market access, represent powerful economic tools that Brussels should fully employ to achieve its own objectives in Syria.
If European states stick to their dominant, yet misguided, position that no support will be channeled towards Damascus until Assad commits to a meaningful political transition process, Brussels risks marginalizing its only meaningful card. Not only this shortsighted strategy ignores the reality on the ground, it also contributes to the deepening impoverishment of the Syrian population and proves counterproductive for Europe’s vital interests in its immediate neighborhood. Not to mention that rather than offering any real benefit for the majority of Syrians living under regime control, the EU policy of sanctions and isolation will likely solidify Assad’s hold on power, with authoritarian rulers adept at using isolation to tighten control over networks of patronage.
Europe should relax some sectoral sanctions such as financial transactions, provide a wide economic support and try to open up space for a longer-term political debate in order to build the foundation for a future political transition, though without losing an eye on day-to-day urgent needs of the Syrian population. The importance of locating the right places for providing the most needed help such as healthcare, education and infrastructure is paramount. Contribution should follow the actual area needs based on the cooperation with the UN and local entities rather than the regime’s institutions.
While abuse of this help by Assad’s government is inevitable, the overall positive impact on the country as a whole and its traumatized civilians should also be taken into consideration. The ceasefire itself, which should certainly be set as the main precondition for any EU assistance, is likely to happen under Assad’s terms more than under Europe’s, there is still ample place for negotiations as the country will need external assistance in rebuilding the land.
‘Time to Play the Money Card in Syria’ – Commentary by Julien Barnes-Dacey – European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
(The Commentary can be downloaded here)