The Berlin Pulse > 2018 > Joost Hiltermann

Can the EU Buy its Way Back into Syria?

The EU could use funds for reconstruction as a lever in Syria, but Russia and the Syrian regime will try to limit its room for manoeuver. By Joost Hiltermann, Programme Director, Middle East and North Africa, Crisis Group

  1. The EU has a vested interest in a durable peace in Syria, but has found itself with limited influence in shaping events to that end. Its principal lever is its promise to fund reconstruction – and its threat to withhold such funding. The EU will “be ready to assist in the reconstruction of Syria only when a comprehensive, genuine and inclusive political transition, negotiated by the Syrian parties in the conflict on the basis of UN Security Council resolution 2254 and the Geneva Communique, is firmly under way”.
  2. Russia has indicated repeatedly that it would like the EU to invest in Syria’s reconstruction now, not after a political transition. It wants the EU’s money as a means of ensuring longer-term stability and reducing its own burden, but not at the price of transforming a regime in whose perpetuation it has invested so much. On the contrary, Moscow considers unconditional reconstruction assistance as an instrument for recognising the regime’s legitimacy.
  3. To this end, the regime is playing the refugee card – together with Russia – to pressure the EU to alter its position. So the EU faces the following dilemma: Damascus and Moscow are in effect telling it that, should it withhold aid, then refugees currently living in countries neighbouring Syria will be less likely to return and could over time seek to migrate to Europe; refugees currently in Europe won’t go home; and Syrians still in Syria may try to leave for Europe as well. In other words, their message is: it’s in your interest to help Assad.
  4. The current standstill could last. Syria and Russia might refuse the sequence demanded by the EU and the EU could stick to its position. For Russia, that outcome would be sub-optimal, but such a peace may be “good enough”, if it means leaving the regime in place – its key goal and achievement since sending its forces into Syria three years ago.
  5. The EU has few levers in Syria. Among its challenges will be maintaining a common line with the US toward Syria and finding a common position across its 28 member states. It could try to nudge Russia and Iran toward a meaningful political transition, emphasising their inherent interest in a stable Syria rather than in the chronically unstable situation the current political set-up would imply – though there is little evidence to date that such arguments have much purchase.
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