Millions of Syrians were displaced abroad by the civil war. Denmark in April claimed Damascus and surrounding towns are safe enough for refugees’ return
Just weeks after Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was re-elected in a poll widely seen as farcical, some smaller European countries are tentatively warming their relations with the regime. Cyprus is moving into a new embassy in Damascus, while Serbia is to send an ambassador — the first time it has replaced a top diplomat since civil war broke out 10 years ago.
These are small steps, not turning points, and EU member states, especially its juggernauts France and Germany, are unlikely to follow any time soon. But the moves, tentative as they are, make clear the challenge the bloc will face as the situation in Syria normalises over time.
Moves by fringe states are “weakening the EU position, and the regime knows perfectly how to play with that”, said Laure Foucher, senior analyst at Crisis Group who focuses on Europe and the MENA region. More than 500,000 people died in an almost decade-long conflict in which Assad used chemical weapons and barrel bombs to terrorise the population.
EU policy stops ambassadors submitting credentials to the Syrian regime, accused of human rights abuses and war crimes. With Assad controlling 70 per cent of the war-battered country, smaller countries want direct channels with Damascus, mostly for pragmatic reasons. Athens sent a new chargé d’affaires to Damascus last year.
“Greece is interested in being present in a country where developments affect our national interests [such] as the migration crisis,” said Nikolaos Protonotarios. With some 3.6m Syrian refugees in Turkey, it is unsurprising that “Greece wants to help . . . in the rebuilding of [Syria] so, at some point, the Syrians who are in Greece and Turkey [can] return home,” a diplomat said. It is not only Athens that wants this: Denmark in April claimed Damascus and surrounding towns are safe enough for refugees’ return. Russia, which backs Assad, has tried to convince states Syria is secure. While fighting has cooled, conflict still rages in north-west Syria which is controlled by a former al-Qaeda affiliate. Those jihadis, whose ranks include Europeans, are another reason some want engagement with the regime. Foreign intelligence services are interested in “information the Syrian intelligence agencies have on thousands of real and suspected [foreign] terrorists,” an internal UN security briefing wrote last year.
There is already a gap between the EU’s political stance and what’s going on on the ground regarding aid Laure Foucher, senior analyst at Crisis Group Some Arab countries see the logic for a thaw. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, reopened embassies in 2018, hoping to counter the influence of Iran, Assad’s military ally, and his enemy Turkey, which controls part of northern Syria. Still there is resistance to readmitting Syria to the Arab League because of what they see as Damascus reluctance to engage meaningfully in the political process. And without political settlement, the EU, which has paid billions for aid, is against helping a pariah regime with a multibillion-dollar reconstruction bill.
“Germany and France are much more interested in a long-term settlement to the conflict . . . not having a political settlement, they view it as a failure,” said Karam Shaar, Syrian analyst and economist. The UN-led peace process’ ambitions have shrunk to bringing regime and opposition groups together to draft a new constitution. It is yet to boast results. For these reasons, moves to re-engage are “a dynamic on the fringe of our Syria policy.
It is only member states that border Syria and that are most concerned with Turkey’s presence who seek more direct channels with Damascus,” a European diplomat said. Still these fringe rumblings herald divisions. Despite the EU’s reluctance to fund reconstruction, many countries fund projects that could be classified as such, for example the rehabilitation of schools. “The EU’s political stance can totally last a long time, the question is what happens concretely,” said Foucher.
“There is already a gap between the EU’s political stance and what’s going on on the ground regarding aid.” Ultimately, some southern European diplomats complain their northern counterparts do not understand the desire for good relations in their Mediterranean neighbourhood. Said one EU diplomat: “This is about engagement, not support.”
Source: TLH. Intelligence and Financial Times, The Lowdown Hub 2021.