Despite understandable hesitation, European leaders should increase stabilisation support for Syria, and accept that assistance can no longer be tied to an unattainable transition.
In the aftermath of the fall of rebel-held East Aleppo, as Bashar al-Assad has consolidated his position across central areas of Syria, increasing attention has turned to the possibility of engaging Damascus with some stabilisation and reconstruction assistance.
For Europeans, this is a particularly pertinent issue. While long sidelined in peace talks, Europe’s ability to deliver economic assistance, through direct financial support, sanctions relief and market access, represent powerful economic tools. This issue will be the focus of some of the discussions at the upcoming Syria Brussels Conference on April 5.
Despite understandable hesitation and fears about propping up Assad, the potential for European assistance to have a real, positive impact on the lives of a traumatised population is an opportunity that should be seized. Even as the brutal nature of Assad’s regime is self-evident – and there is a long way to go before peace returns to all of Syria – Europeans should be looking at smart ways to increase support into Syria to help stabilisation efforts and assist the wider population.
Importantly, this approach should be conditioned on a sustained ceasefire and humanitarian access rather than a political transition. This does not need to mean normalisation or giving up on the UN peace process, nor does it have to represent significant reconstruction funding, but it could include the easing of some sectoral sanctions if levels of violence subside.
For the moment the dominant position among Europeans states is that no support will be channelled towards Damascus until Assad commits to a meaningful transition process, as laid out in a new EU strategy for Syria. Indeed, some believe that Europe’s ability to contribute towards the cost of reconstruction – estimated at more than $200 billion – represents leverage to help secure this transition, particularly with Russia which is clearly not going to put the necessary funds into rebuilding the country.
But this is a misguided position – and one that risks marginalising Europe’s only meaningful card. An insistence on linking economic assistance to a political transition ignores the reality on the ground, where the regime is more dominant than ever, and its longstanding unwillingness to negotiate its own demise. Worse, this approach will contribute to the deepening impoverishment of the Syrian people and prove counterproductive for European interests.
The key point is that conditionality must be rooted in what is more realistically attainable
A policy aimed at squeezing Assad - which will involve maintaining an intense regime of sanctions and severe restrictions on support - will not come cost free. It will intensify the hollowing out of the Syrian state, with critical implications. To take one example, Syrian hospitals are now experiencing a shortage of cancer drugs, in part because of sanctions on financial transactions despite supposed humanitarian opt-outs. More broadly these measures will severely restrict the ability of Syrians to even begin the task of rebuilding their lives in areas of the country where fighting has subsided – which for many is now the overriding priority - fuelling the ongoing cycle of destabilising brokenness.
While standing back may represent a principled stand, it will do little for the majority of Syrians living under regime control. In reality, this policy will likely solidify rather than weaken Assad’s hold on power, with authoritarian rulers adept at using isolation to tighten control over networks of patronage. This story played out with devastating effect in Iraq in the 1990s, as well as in Sudan over the past decade where sanctions have just been lifted, partly in recognition of their failure.
With transition off the near-term agenda, Europeans should instead prioritise the need to improve the plight of civilians. While some argue that support should only be channelled to non-regime controlled areas, these account for only a minority of the population and come with increasing restrictions imposed by both Turkey and Jordan on cross-border activities.
Instead, Europeans need a national stabilisation approach that focuses on both stepped up assistance to non-regime areas and a less restrictive approach towards Damascus. This comes with deep dilemmas but the key point is that conditionality must now be rooted in what is more realistically attainable.
Most importantly, recovery support should be tied to the implementation of a sustained ceasefire in areas not part of the ongoing anti-ISIS campaign and full humanitarian access. Increased assistance should then focus on critical stabilisation capacity in areas such as healthcare, education and core infrastructure support, and be based on local needs assessments that allow Europeans to address specific, identifiable gaps. It should also mostly be driven by engagement with local actors and the UN rather than government institutions in Damascus. The regime will clearly look to exploit incoming assistance for its own gain – and in the end, there is no full-proof way of avoiding this outcome - but there are still means to ensure that stabilisation assistance has a positive impact on the ground.
Assad has hitherto rejected such frameworks, but European acceptance of the regime’s continued existence could change this. On the ground advances – likely to be solidified by near-term gains around Damascus - also means that Assad is increasingly able to strike a ceasefire in his favour. As fighting subsides, he will likely face increasing pressure from domestic constituencies and international allies to secure external assistance. This is a dynamic that Europeans should look to take advantage of.
If a ceasefire and full humanitarian access can be sustained, Europeans could shift focus towards wider stabilisation support – including the loosening of a limited number of sectoral sanctions on areas that impact the wider population such as those restricting financial transactions – tying these steps to political measures such as local devolution which may now represent the only viable political path forward. As part of this Europeans could look to negotiate increased local ownership of the reconstruction process. This could play some role in checking new eruptions of conflict and opening up space for a longer term political conversation.
Moving forward Europeans should continue to play up the possibility of substantial, wide-ranging economic support on the basis of a meaningful political transition, but they should not lose sight of the urgency of immediate needs and the possibility for a more realistically conditioned impact.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.