After six years of brutal conflict it is now clear that the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will remain in power for the foreseeable future. In the interest of providing desperately needed humanitarian and stabilising relief to the Syrian population, as well as addressing the conditions feeding refugees flows and extremism, European states should adopt a new strategy that concedes this reality, says Julien Barnes-Dacey in a new ECFR report, To end a war: Europe’s role in bringing peace to Syria.
Barnes-Dacey proposes advancing a devolution track as the necessary means of sustaining a de-escalation process. Without a clear sense of this wider political umbrella, Barnes-Dacey argues that current ceasefire efforts are doomed to failure.
The proposed strategy rests on a core deal: the Assad-led regime secures local and international affirmation of the sovereignty of the central government over all of Syria’s territory in exchange for agreements on the localised devolution of power, including control over security arrangements, in remaining opposition zones of control.
The proposed approach concedes the regime’s core political ambitions in order to shift Assad’s calculus towards the acceptance of a softer re-integration of ongoing opposition areas back under nominal central influence. The regime may feel confident now, with ongoing ambitions of complete conquest. But it faces constraints, including the reality of foreign backed spheres of influence, that mean it may have to accept a lesser victory.
Europeans should acknowledge that the alternative option – a continued Russian- and Iranian-backed military advance by Assad’s forces, which no one is prepared to actively halt – will cause yet more violence, death, and dislocation.
The paper suggests an opening for European action given the lack of a political strategy underpinning Russian and US-led de-escalation efforts. President Emmanuel Macron’s renewed focus on Syria and support for de-escalation efforts, and the inability of other member states to take a lead on this issue, make France the natural leader of this initiative.
On this basis, European members of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) – the EU, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK – need to forge a long-overdue coherent and actionable European position. The European approach should look to:
1. Inject an immediate national devolution agenda into negotiations via the ISSG. For European support, any agreement must grant immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access and provide a mechanism on access to detainees held by Assad.
2. Work to persuade the opposition of the merits of this approach. Europeans should be honest that de-escalation and local autonomy now represent the best option left open to the opposition, particularly if supported with stepped-up European stabilisation support.
3. Discourage US efforts to fight Iran in eastern Syria. A US-backed zone in the east, situated between hostile Iranian proxies in Syria and Iraq, would intensify the geopolitical struggle over Syria.
4. Work to secure Iran’s agreement to the de-escalation process. Quite simply, Iran has the capacity to spoil any agreement on Syria it does not accept. Europeans should press Iran to see a devolved approach as a means of advancing a win-win solution.
5. Help Ankara to see that a devolved approach can constrain Kurdish ambitions. Europeans should press Syrian Kurds to stand aside in favour of Arab control of post-ISIS Raqqa and to not pursue efforts to link up their two territorial zones of control.
6. Propose a stabilisation partnership with Turkey in northern Syria. While Ankara remains resistant to external support in its area of influence, it is also encountering increasing difficulties in managing the associated burdens. It is also likely to face growing threats out of Idlib.
7. Increase stabilisation support aimed at restoring essential services and building institutional capacity across Syria. This should include expanded humanitarian assistance. It should also include a focus on regime-held areas. This does not mean normalisation, nor should it include reconstruction funding which should only come on the back of a final intra-Syrian settlement.
Julien Barnes Dacey, the author of the report states:
"Assad’s continued rule offends the European sense of justice, but Europeans unfortunately have no other choice if they want to bring some peace to Syria. The path outlined here is difficult and uncertain. But without a political track, the current ceasefires will surely collapse into renewed violence.”