On 24th and 25th April 2018, the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN) co-chaired the second Conference “Supporting the future of Syria and the region”, in order to remember the role that 57 countries, 10 regional organizations and 19 UN agencies could have to contribute to economic, political and humanitarian aid for the future of Syria and the stability of the neighboring countries in the region. The Syrian conflict has been going on for eight years, and since it began both the EU and its neighbors had to adapt their policies to the humanitarian emergency present on the territory, which had an important impact in organizing suitable approaches to cope with the crisis. This essay, which will be published in two parts, seeks to help understand the measures taken by the EU in Syria. In this first article, firstly, the evolution of the Syrian conflict will be explained starting from its begin in 2011 in order to understand the difficult to find an agreement for the resolution of the conflict. Secondly, a presentation of EU policy in Syria will be provided. Thirdly, the EU’s economic, humanitarian and financial assistance to resolve the Syrian emergency will be presented, along with the results of the first Conference “Supporting the future of Syria and the region” held in Brussels on 5th April 2017.
1.Background of the Syrian conflict
At the beginning of 2011, the Arab world is full of demonstrations against authoritarian powers: it is the so-called Arab Spring, or rather popular uprisings which break out mainly in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Algeria, Iraq, Bahrain, Jordan and Djibouti. In Syria, protests were launched on social networks in February 2011 against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
1. Image – Map of the Arab Spring Countries 2011
On 15th March 2011, great demonstrations began in the cities of Daraa, Hama, and Homs calling for reforms and pushing the president to resign and eliminate the institutional structure of the Ba’th Party (socialist, anti-Zionist and anti-imperialist). However, since 1963, every form of organized protest is forbidden in the country, because of the power conferred by the government on intelligence and security services. The regime then tried to suppress the demonstrations by force, causing hundreds of victims, but protests spread to all major cities. On 4th June, in Jisr al-Shugur, near the Turkish border, the first armed confrontation took place: the police fired at a funeral, the rebels assaulted their barracks. Thus the armed uprising began. On 29th June, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was born, and it represented the first armed opposition force.
In 2012, clashes between the rebels and the Syrian regular army increased. These actions provoked international reaction, mainly because of Syria’s strategic position. Indeed, the United States, France, Great Britain and Turkey were from the beginning lined up with the rebels, instead Russia, China, Iran and Venezuela with the central government. Since the spring of 2013, the conflict has become increasingly violent: Gulf countries armed Syrian rebels, instead Hezbollah fought alongside the army of Bashar al-Assad. Although the FSA is the backbone of the armed opposition in Syria, at the beginning of January 2012 other parallel groups appeared to operate more autonomously. Among them the most important is the al-Nusra Front, which was created on 23rd January 2012. This group was initially composed of the Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda (Islamic State of Iraq) that fights the American presence in the country: Syrian members of the organization, including militants of Iraqi nationality saw the Syrian crisis as the opportunity to overthrow the Assad government and establish a Sharia-based Islamic state. The Al-Nusra Front, representing the most radical wing of Sunni fundamentalism, operated independently and with different goals than the FSA, but both fight against Syrian regular troops. In 2013, although the strategic command of rebel operations was still maintained by the FSA, extremist groups began to gain more and more autonomy in the field. The al-Nusra Front was supported by a new formation composed mainly of non-Syrian militiamen: the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In April 2013, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that al-Nusra is an extension of ISI in Syria, and declared the merger of the two groups in the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL); however, the leader of the al-Nusra Front rejected the merger and in June the al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, intervened to maintain separate formations, by demanding al-Baghdadi to keep his area of operation limited to Iraq. The crumbling in different factions of the FSA involved the beginning of a clash that saw three factions fighting each other: the rebels, the regular army and the Jihadists. Indeed, the clashes became increasingly violent among the different factions, so that on 12th August 2013 the first chemical attack occurred in Ghouta, in the suburbs of Damascus, by the Assad regime, during which 1300 people died. In that case, the UN began to understand the scaling of the conflict and asked Syria to dismantle its arsenal.
In 2014, the Global Coalition against the Islamic state was established, under the aegis of the United States. The 73 members of the Coalition wanted to attack it on all fronts, in order to dismantle its networks and fight its ambitions. In addition, the Coalition was committed to destroying Daesh’s financial and economic infrastructure and preventing foreign terrorist fighters from crossing borders. In 2015, Al-Nusra conquered the entire province of Idlib and in May ISIL advanced to the West, taking Palmira and controlling almost half of Syria: on 30th September, Assad controlled only 20% of the territory even if he was supported by the Russian army. The end of 2015 saw the UN very involved in the attempts of a truce between the parties. Indeed, on 27th February 2016 the long mediation of the UN Special Envoy for the Syrian crisis, Staffan de Mistura, was successful, having the parties agreed to a truce for the first time in five years.
In five years the civil war caused 250 thousand deaths, 4.8 million refugees abroad, 6 million internally displaced persons. In 2016, from 14th to 24th March, five years after the start of the civil war, a new series of approaches, aimed at ending the conflict in Syria, took place in Geneva, under the aegis of the United Nations. The UN special envoy wanted to ensure that attention was focused on forming a new government, drafting a new constitution and holding parliamentary and presidential elections within 18 months. At the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his defense ministry to start the process of withdrawing most of the Russian forces from Syria on 14th March. However, any attempt to cease fire or truce to allow the entry of humanitarian aid failed. In 2017, six years after the start of the conflict, according to the UN, the conflict had already left 310,000 dead, hundreds of thousands injured and twelve million refugees.
2.The EU policy in Syria
The Syrians’ migration flow has had an impact on the balance of European policies and neighboring countries, especially in Turkey. Indeed, since 2015, more and more people have flown Syria to get to Europe, passing through Turkey to arrive in Greece. According to official data provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) the number of registered Syrian refugees is 5,647,637 (updated on 19th April 2018). Indeed, the countries neighboring Syria started to see masse displacements and unmanageable flows, and that is why they have been forced to ask for help from the EU.
2. Image – Migration journeys to the European Union – Human Rights Watch
On 18th March 2016, in Brussels, the leaders of the 28 EU’s member states met to find an agreement with Turkey and to contain migratory flows in Europe. According to the agreement, migrants and refugees (including Syrians) that want to arrive in Europe should be sent back to Turkey if they do not request for asylum with to Greek authorities. To comply with International Laws, applications should be registered and examined by the Greek authorities: for every Syrian refugee sent back to Turkey from the Greek islands, another Syrian should be transferred from Turkey to the EU through humanitarian channels. Also according to the agreement, at the economic level, the EU decided to accelerate the payment of € 3 billion to Turkey in order to manage refugee camps, promising 3 more billion by the end of 2018.
However, the perpetuation of the conflict in Syria has made the management of the humanitarian crisis increasingly complex, especially for the EU, which has always stated that the only solution to resolve the conflict is based on dialogue and political transition. Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, the EU has taken a multi-dimensional approach, aimed at acting in the entire region involved. The EU’s strategic objectives in Syria focus on five key areas:
- The end of the war through a political transition negotiated by the parties to the conflict under the aegis of the UN Special Envoy for Syria, in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015), whose purpose was to end the Syrian conflict giving a decision-making importance for its people for the future,
- Promoting a meaningful and inclusive transition in Syria
- Providing humanitarian support of the most vulnerable people across the country in a timely, effective, and efficient way.
- Promoting democracy, human rights and freedom of speech by strengthening Syrian civil society organizations,
- Facilitating the process of national reconciliation and transitional justice.
These objectives were endorsed by the Foreign Affairs Council conclusions of 3rd April 2017 which, together with the joint statement by the High Representative and the Commission on 14th March 2017, constitute the EU Strategy for Syria. According to the Strategy, 13.5 million Syrians needed humanitarian assistance, including 6.3 million internally displaced people, of which nearly 2 million people under siege and another 5 million Syrian refugees hosted by neighboring countries. The EU, aware of the effects of the Syrian conflict on neighboring states, confirmed its commitment to providing support to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, as well as to Iraq and Egypt, which had demonstrated their commitment to host millions of refugees. The Council attributed mainly to the Syrian regime the continuing violations and abuses of human rights that led to the humanitarian crisis. Indeed, the EU has pledged to support the Syrian opposition and in particular the High Negotiations Committee (HNC). Unlike the decisions taken in 2011, and understanding the gravity of the situation, the EU committed to reviewing certain restrictive measures in order to resume cooperation with the transition authorities, mobilize funds to support post-conflict recovery and reconstruction, including cultural heritage, and use appropriate tools to stabilize communities through economic development.
The EU has also stepped up its efforts by supporting the efforts of the Global Coalition, under the aegis of the United States, to counter Da’esh in order to fight terrorism both inside and outside Europe. In this regard, on 20th October 2014, during the EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting, the “Syria and Iraq: Counter Terrorism/Foreign Fighters Strategy” was approved, establishing sanctions. EU restrictions and sanctions affected both Da’esh and the Assad’s regime (which continued a repressive policy towards the population) and its supporters. Therefore, on 29th May 2017, the Council extended the EU’s restrictive measures against the Syrian regime until 1st June 2018. The sanctions currently in force include in particular oil embargo, restrictions on certain investments, and restrictions on the export of equipment and technologies that could be used for internal repression, as well as equipment and technologies for monitoring or intercepting Internet or telephone communications.
3.Economic aid and the first Conference supporting the future of Syria
The EU, as an economic power able to impact crisis-ridden areas, appears to be one of the most involved regional actors in response to the Syrian crisis thanks to an economic aid of over € 10.6 billion for the humanitarian assistance and development since the beginning of the conflict. On 4th February 2016, at the London conference on “Support for Syria and the region”, the EU allocated € 2.39 billion for 2016 and 2017. Since 2011, considering the humanitarian field, the EU Commission responded to the crisis by providing assistance and protection, especially for the most vulnerable people. Sure enough, the EU supported humanitarian programs implemented by the UN, international organizations and international NGOs in compliance with the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence in order to respond to humanitarian emergency.
3.Image- First aid into Aleppo 2014, UNHCR
The EU has provided about € 1.65 billion in humanitarian aid to ensure first aid measures to both the most affected categories and the neighboring countries, in order to guarantee a program enabling of saving lives by intervening in the food sector, health, shelter, water, hygiene, protection and education. In addition to the economic support provided to Turkey, the EU supported Jordan and Lebanon, providing funds over 2.5 million refugees. Since 2011, the EU Commission mobilized over € 3.4 billion in non-humanitarian aid, including:
- 380 million through the macro-financial assistance (MFA) to Jordan to assist Syrian refugees,
- 249 million through the EU Instrument contributing to stability and peace (ICSP) for international mediation efforts, assistance programs in opposition-controlled areas in Syria, measures to reduce tensions between refugees and host communities in the region, and support the destruction of Syrian chemical stocks and the prevention of chemical threats,
- 28 million through the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights;
- 1,428 million disbursed through the EU Regional Trust Fund in response to the Syrian crisis, which includes the funds allocated to the European Neighborhood Instrument (ENI), the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA) and the Development Cooperation Instrument (DCI).
On 4th and 5th April 2017, the first Conference “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region” was held in Brussels, during which the international community and the governments of the refugee host countries met to reaffirm their commitment to help both the millions of civilians affected by the conflict in Syria and the Syrian refugees (through the communities that host them). This Conference brought together representatives from over 70 countries and international organizations, and aimed at further progress towards a sustainable inclusive peace, while addressing urgent humanitarian needs. The participants recalled the urgency of allowing the rapid and safe humanitarian access, supported and unhindered by UN agencies and NGOs to all the needy through the most direct routes, including through lines of conflict and beyond borders. On that occasion, the participants decided to allocate € 5.6 billion for 2017, and 3.47 billion for 2018-2020 to humanitarian support. Indeed, some international financial institutions and donors have announced approximately € 27.9 billion of loans at preferential terms. Furthermore, the participants expressed their interest in political measures based on the principle that humanitarian assistance can not only stop the suffering of the Syrian people. They underlined the importance of the Resolution 2254 (2015) of the UN Security Council, calling for a ceasefire in Syria in order to facilitate peace negotiations between the parties of the conflict. The Conference highlighted that any lasting solution to the conflict should be centered on the satisfaction of the democratic aspirations and needs of the Syrian people and on the security and protection of all. Only an inclusive political transition could put an end to the conflict.
So, until 2017, the EU has played a key role in helping the Syrian population, investing on various fronts and acting both as a regional actor and as part of a larger project. However, the conflict in Syria has not ceased yet, and although economic aid and political agreements with neighboring countries the stability in Syria still seems far, also due to the interference of third countries now involved in the conflict as external actors: Russia, the Global Coalition, the Turkish intervention against Syrian Kurds to create a buffer zone and avoid any direct contact with the Turkish Kurds that could jeopardize the stability of the Ankara government. This is the reason why, in the second article, the current political scenario will be examined, especially in light of the joint intervention in Syria by the United States, France and Great Britain after the latest chemical attack by Assad on the population. Furthermore, the opinion of experts and theorists on the EU’s role in Syria and political and economic approaches will help to understand the importance of the second “Conference supporting the future of Syria and the region” (24th April 2018 in Brussels), also commenting on the impact that the latter may have on the conflict itself and whether the EU is actually adopting an effective approach to ending the conflict.
Maria Elena Argano
For further information:
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