The Assad regime has inched closer to winning the Syrian conflict during 2018. With Russian and Iranian support, the regime has reestablished strong and authoritarian rule, at least outside the de-escalation zones where its remit is still curtailed. If the regime really does regain full control and the EU withholds reconstruction aid, European influence over Syria’s future appears to be very minimal.
The EU has largely absented itself from the latest phase of diplomacy. It was not European but Turkish military and diplomatic weight that got Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to agree to a buffer zone around the last opposition hold out in Idlib province and to suspend a military assault. The EU has failed to achieve anything as tangible. That said, many in the EU are adjusting to the fluctuating conditions on the ground and trying to retain some presence – albeit around a set of slimmed down objectives.
Moreover, many European diplomats do not entirely accept the premise that the conflict is definitively over. They express doubt that the regime can effectively hold and exert long-term power over many parts of the country. They attach importance to the US’s recent re-engagement and suggest this may increase the prospect of two areas – one in the north-east around Raqqa, the other in Idlib province – retaining some autonomy from the Assad regime. EU policymakers are set to support new efforts in the north-east around Raqqa to help restart some kind of normal life and local governance.
Many EU policymakers also point to an even stronger humanitarian obligation to help ordinary Syrian citizens, and they particularly stress that basic humanitarian aid is necessary to ward off another mass exodus of Syrians into Europe. While donors like the UK have withdrawn from supporting local projects with opposition forces, they are setting funds aside for humanitarian relief. It is also not entirely certain that all European funders will stand completely aside from reconstruction aid. Some argue that even minor, symbolic concessions by the regime would suffice for more European funding to flow. The EU is indeed looking at the possibility of channelling support through the UN and World Bank.
Although the leaders called for a new Syrian constitution and elections in 2019, this was largely formulaic. The impression was of France and Germany signing up to an agenda already set by Turkey and Russia, and also doing so without coordination with their EU partners. They were clearly more focused on keeping the Idlib arrangements alive to prevent more migration to Europe and talking about the return of refugees, than making any realistic plans or policy interventions for an inclusive settlement in Syria.
To sum up, events relating to the Syria conflict in 2018 have left the EU and member states marginalised. Whether the EU and its member states are definitely “out of the game” is hard to determine at this stage, but European leverage will be more indirect in the future. The unmet challenge of European donors is to link their support on the ground to a political strategy for the conflict.
‘Syria: Is Europe’s Influence in the Region Finished?’ – Analysis by Richard Youngs – Carnegie Europe.