Beyond Geneva

Unlocking Europe’s Syrian straitjacket

The EU is in urgent need of a Syria policy that looks beyond the chimera of a negotiated transition. Rather than grasping for means toward this implausible end, a sound approach would prioritize bolstering those assets Syrian society needs to ensure its immediate survival and future viability.

Syrian refugees in Osmaniye Cevdetiye camp in Turkey on 10 February 2016 during a visit by a delegation from the European Parliament’s Committee on Budgets.
EU 2016/European Parliament

Some such resources are highly tangible: Dwindling water supply and agricultural output were among the structural factors that fueled the uprising, and have further deteriorated as a result of conflict. Syria thus faces twin crises of food and water insecurity, the consequences of which will reverberate far beyond its borders.

Investing in human capital

Syria’s reservoir of human capital is of similarly existential importance. The country’s pre-war education system was among the best in the Arab world, cultivating a sophisticated (but highly suppressed) citizenry and capable (but underemployed) work force. The past eight years catalyzed once unthinkable forms of civic engagement, especially among Syria’s youth. That came through the uprising itself, but also through a surge of Western-funded civic work as well as large-scale migration to Europe.

Today, Syria’s education sector—from primary schools to universities—is in tatters, ravaged by physical violence, political interference, and an exodus of qualified staff. Illiteracy is said to be on the rise. Young men deliberately fail in their university studies year after year, as repeating courses offers the easiest way to extend enrolment and thus postpone conscription. In parallel, Damascus is fast rebuilding the “wall of fear” that structured life before the war, extinguishing those forms of activism in which countless Syrians have found meaning. Disengagement is spreading as hopes for the future dim and some Western donors appear to grow weary of all things Syrian.

Viewed from Europe, the imperative of investing in Syria’s human capital and ecological sustainability is not just moral: It is eminently practical. A country that is running out of water, unable to feed itself, and increasingly under-educated and disillusioned all but guarantees relapse into conflict and desperate emigration. Importantly, these are areas where Europe can do more via existing channels—such as NGOs and multilateral institutions already operating inside Syria—without a shift toward full-fledged normalization with Damascus.

Improving the situation of refugees

A second step toward rationalizing European Syria policy involves fundamentally reorienting the discussion of the refugee issue. Today, mainstream Western governments rightly acknowledge that Syria is unfit for the return of refugees: Anecdotal evidence increasingly points toward returnees being disappeared or forcibly conscripted—or smuggling themselves back out of the country to avoid such a fate. That reality runs up against the pressures of xenophobic, anti-refugee rhetoric, whether in Europe or in countries neighboring Syria. The result is that everyone from Western governments to UN agencies through to major aid organizations find themselves focused on how to deal with the return of refugees—maybe not today, but as soon as possible.

In buying into this conversation, international players fuel the perception that return is impending. This posture has insidious knock-on effects, from legitimizing the belligerent anti-refugee posture of nativist actors to laying the groundwork for reducing aid allocations to refugee communities. It also distracts from the far more pertinent question of how best to provide for both refugee populations and host communities in the near- and medium-term, as the current scenario protracts.

What is missing is a far more explicit and unified recognition that refugee populations can only be dealt with as a long-term issue. In countries like Germany and Turkey—which have crafted forward-looking policies around the understanding that refugees can play a positive economic role—that means a continued focus on promoting lasting socioeconomic integration. In a country like Lebanon, a sustainable holding pattern will demand continued Western investments, but also basic reforms to an inhumane system whose manifest goal is to pressure Syrians into going back.

This, too, is a political issue as well as a moral one. The current trajectory will see some refugees trickle back not because their country is safe, but because their place of refuge has become unbearable. Yet premature return will merely recreate the conditions that caused millions to flee in the first place. The result could be a cyclical crisis of which Syrians will overwhelmingly bear the cost, but from which neither Europe nor Syria’s neighbors will be spared.

Supporting the society unconditionally

A third and final step entails reconsidering what Europe demands from Damascus in exchange for extending larger-scale support to the country’s recovery. The current slogan—which links reconstruction funding to a “political transition”—is treacherously ambiguous. As the regime consolidates and international patience with Syria ebbs, it is possible to imagine Europe accepting, in lieu of a political transition, sham presidential elections accompanied by a raft of technical reforms. The latter might include a new constitution, decentralization, and amendments to predatory urban planning laws—all of which are strictly irrelevant unless Damascus proves willing to implement them in good faith.

As such, European countries will do well to reformulate their conditions for re-engagement in far more down-to-earth terms. These should center on regime practices that make it impossible for millions of Syrians to safely resume their lives: mass conscription, systematic persecution of distrusted constituencies, and large-scale expropriation of private property, to name a few. Absent demonstrable progress on these fronts, normalization will do more to entrench and enrich the regime than it will to help ordinary Syrians.

It is acutely possible that such concessions will not come. The emerging status quo may well drag on for a generation, as a brutalized society submits to the rein of a bankrupt regime. Yet Syria is nonetheless undergoing a transition, lurching from a phase of unfathomable violence toward one of unjust and unsustainable peace. But relative calm should not eclipse the underlying problem: Syria’s power structure has hollowed itself out beyond repair, and will continue to decay as a result of its own nihilistic approach to survival. Europe cannot get the regime to change; its only option is to focus on helping Syrian society manage the crises it still has in store.