Syrian crisis: How EU’s collective inaction comes back to haunt us

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Syrian crisis: How EU’s collective inaction comes back to haunt us

During the height of the protests that swept across the Arab world in 2011, the Syrian people took to the streets in their thousands to advocate for political and socio-economic reforms, hoping to repeat the success of their revolutionary counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt. The brutal crackdown by the Assad regime that followed sparked a now thirteen yearlong conflict that has left the country utterly devastated and its people destitute and in dire need of long-term international aid.

A report of United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) published in February and data presented on Monday at the eight Brussels Conference on “Supporting the future of Syria and the region”, showed that out of a population of almost twenty-four million Syrians, more than seventy percent are now in critical need of aid.

Almost 90 percent of the overall population is estimated to live in poverty as the remaining infrastructure and institutions in the country have crumbled into disrepair. Seven million Syrians live as refugees in neighboring countries, depending on continued assistance from international donors. Half a million people are estimated to have died during the civil war, with another 150,000 missing, their fate unknown to this day.

The Syrian pound has lost over 90 percent of its value, inflation reaches record-heights and whatever is left of local production suffers from lack of investment and numerous problems resulting in decreasing output, creating an enormous challenge for the international community to prevent the economic crisis from leading to a new spike in violence across the country and even the wider region.

A political settlement to end the conflict has proven elusive due to a lack of decisive action against a brutal regime that committed numerous atrocities against its own people in an effort to remain in power.

Ongoing hostilities continue to impede critical reconstruction. The international aid is supposed to be distributed on the basis of needs and pro-rata but is weaponized by the regime. Humanitarian access to affected areas in northern Syria still held by rebel forces or ruled by the autonomous Kurdish administration has contributed to acute food insecurity and rampant spread of treatable diseases amongst the affected population.

No safe country for returns

Those Syrian that are still able to do so continue to look for ways to leave the country, resulting in an unprecedented brain drain of the country’s future economic prospects across harrowing journeys across the region in an attempt to reach safety. EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell admitted at the conference that the humanitarian situation in Syria has not improved and warned against EU’s own attempts to encourage refugees to return “voluntarily” to Syria which still is not safe for them.

The EU remains the biggest donor of humanitarian aid to Syria but its neighboring countries, Turkey, Lebanon Jordan, were mostly left to shoulder the monumental task of hosting vast numbers of Syrian refugees by themselves. Promised funds from other countries to help alleviate this pressure arrived too infrequently. The budget cut last year by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) has not been compensated fully by the EU and other donors.

As the conflict dragged on, Syria and the international community faced many challenges related to the conflict, including a multi-facetted proxy war, an unprecedented number of refugees flooding the region and even heading towards the EU, the rise and initial defeat of a cross-border terrorist state and even some of the harshest sanctions imposed on any state in recent memory. Yet, still the EU failed to recognize the stakes that other states such as Iran and Russia had in helping the Assad regime survive.

Even an earthquake that devastated communities across Türkiye and Syria in early 2023 could not renew international efforts to support the Syrian people in their hour of need. International aid continued to flood into Turkey but only a fraction of this was distributed to affected areas in Syria. Once again, “competing demands” resulted in the Syrian people being left out in the cold.

No political solution in sight

Speeches made by several attending representatives at the Brussels conference underlined the importance of adhering to the commitments set out in the United Nations Security Council resolution 2254 in 2015.

But they failed to recognize that no meaningful effort has been made for years when it comes to committing all parties to a lasting ceasefire, working towards a Syrian-led and owned political transition, combatting a resurgent Islamic State, providing meaningful support in bringing elements of this organization to justice in an international court of law, or provide continued assistance and expertise at a sufficient scale on the ground.

Due to “competing demands” we even willingly turned a blind eye to organized push-back operations and the worsening situation in the detention facilities across northeastern Syria. A recent report by Amnesty International highlights the systemic violations taking place against detainees in these camps due to a critical lack of resources, support and training. The international community has failed to help the Kurdish administration to prosecute foreign fighters and facilitate the return of families to their countries of origin.

Our inaction then was the canary in the coal mine as the West and the EU in particular were either unable and/or unwilling to act as a standard bearer of the norms and values we claim to hold dear, resulting in geopolitical adversaries to capitalize on this by filling in the vacuum we refused to fill with comprehensive policies, funding and action.

We continue to shirk these values and its associated responsibilities and only deal with problems as they finally appear near our borders, starting time and time again on the backfoot and with a massive time crunch to get meaningful policy frameworks through the funnel of the legislation process that leaves it open to backdoor politicking and exploitation by opportunistic EU leaders. The recent EU agreements with Egypt and Lebanon to help them manage migration despite human rights concerns are examples of this.

High Representative Borrell’s mentioning of the need to look in a pragmatic manner towards potential solutions to the Syrian crisis sent shivers down my spine, as it was deliberately vague and exemplified the indecisiveness when it comes to a common EU approach to this and other ongoing crises. We can therefore not be surprised that our international partners will continue to lend their ears to other super powers, while we risk growing gradually more isolated.

By Bart Rombouts

The views and opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Linklaters.

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