Sunday

5th Feb 2023

Opinion

Syria is still an EU problem

  • Europe has felt the impact of the Syrian civil war more than any region outside the Middle East (Photo: Reuters/Omar Sanadiki)

As the war in Syria comes gradually to its painful conclusion, the country's destiny is under the influence of ever more regional and international powers. Europe, however, is not one of them.

For Europeans and Syrians alike, it is a disastrous situation. From the refugee crisis to violent extremism, Europe has felt the impact of the Syrian civil war more than any region outside the Middle East.

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Yet the EU continues to have virtually no influence or even policy on the country. What little there is has been always linked to US policy. But global politics and simply geography mean European and US interests are not necessarily identical.

Fundamentally, Syria is much closer to Europe than it is to US, and immense numbers of Syrians are now refugees in Europe. When extremism thrived in Syria, it was not long before it was exported to European capitals and cities.

US attitudes to Syria are best characterised by its former American special envoy, James Jeffrey, who stated that his "job is to make the war a quagmire for the Russians".

The corollary of a policy aimed squarely at bogging down Russia has been further catastrophe for Syrians caught in the crossfire of geopolitics. Increasing poverty, hunger, illiteracy, drug and human trafficking, radicalism, combined with an ever more oppressive Syrian regime.

All development indicators show that Syrian women are the first victims of that "quagmire".

The persistent efforts to weaken Syria are pushing it to become a failed state. It goes without saying that failed states are the major threats for regional and international security, and it is enough to look at Iraq to remember that reversing the situation from failed into functional state will be a challenging task.

When the demonstrations started in 2011, the EU and US claimed that they would help Syrians to be able to protect their human rights from the violations of the Syrian regime, to help them to fulfil their aspirations of a democratic Syria.

Nonetheless, Western support would find itself in the hands of armed factions in Syria who themselves opposed democracy and who would themselves violate the human rights of Syrians.

It was not long into the political struggle that words such 'human rights' and 'democracy' disappeared from the vocabulary of Europe's Syrian diplomacy. Syrian democratic groups were marginalised and forgotten.

The war might have brutalised Syria, but its people are still human beings living in the 21st century. We still see the benefits of democratic systems, we bitterly regret the fact that democracy and development were not supported, and deeply resent that our country was pushed back into the darkness of terrorism and radicalisation.

Syrian women - who have proved their capability and ambition for peace over the last 10 years - are angry that international support went to political groups opposed to women's rights. Whenever they had the chance, these groups have worked effectively to disempower women and deprive us of our internationally-recognised rights.

The US is now using sanctions on the presumption that increased economic pressure will lead to a fresh wave of protests in Syria, and finally regime change.

But such strategies have proved to be unachievable, thanks not only to the oppression of the Syrian regime, but also because Syrians do not see the current opposition as a modern, democratic, viable alternative.

The civil war's conclusion demands that Europe finally develop a cohesive policy that gives hope for those Syrians determined to build a secular and democratic state. There is no need to reinvent the wheel in Syria, Europe started its modern era when it adopted democratic, pluralistic politics - freedom of speech

EU 'ideally placed'

If Europe wants to help the Syrian people - and especially Syrian women - it is imperative to build its strategy on recognising the fundamental rights of Syrians as people, not as pawns in a greater political game. It must support Syrian political groups that actually value human rights and modern values of freedom, democracy and secularism.

Decisions made in Brussels should not be based on whether they will hurt the governments in Damascus, Moscow, or Tehran.

The EU is ideally placed to play a catalytic role in convincing the new Biden administration of the futility of current and historic US policy in Syria, and its negative impacts on Syria and the region.

Europe can show the necessity and urgency of a political settlement that takes into consideration the aspiration of Syrians for a modern state.

It is also critical that the EU helps Syrians build a democratic alternative to the regime, something that will protect Syria from collapsing, and ensure that Europe has a peaceful, modern and democratic neighbour. That would realise the dreams of 2011 and do much to stabilise the Mediterranean.

Author bio

Mouna Ghanem is a democratic activist who has written about the civil war and peace process for outlets including the Guardian and Independent. She previously served on the Women's Advisory Board to the UN special envoy for Syria. A medical doctor, prior to the civil war she worked for international agencies including UNFPA and UNIFEM.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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