[Translate to English:] Ein Mann läuft durch eine komplett zerstörte Straße

The EU can overcome strategic deficits in and around Syria

Since 2015, more than one million Syrians have fled their country for Europe. In order to facilitate their voluntary return, a safe and secure environment grounded in a functioning rule of law must first be established in Syria. In targeting this goal, the EU and its member states should combine their foreign policy instruments and examine carefully the details of Russian, Turkish, Iranian, Saudi Arabian, U.S. and Israeli policies toward Syria. In a new policy brief, individual country experts explain how each of these key states operate in the Middle East and identify which interests Europe can assert – and how.

Foto Christian Hanelt
Christian Hanelt
Senior Expert Europe, Neighbourhood and the Middle East
Foto Miriam Kosmehl
Miriam Kosmehl
Senior Expert Eastern Europe and EU Neighbourhood

In 2018, nearly 100,000 Syrian refugees, that is, nearly one-in-three applicants, were granted asylum in the EU. With more than one million Syrians who have arrived in Europe since 2015, the EU, together with its neighbours to the southeast (i.e., Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq), currently hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees.

Syria itself has more than six million internally displaced persons who, in addition to the country’s other five million residents, are in need of humanitarian aid on a daily basis. The civil war has left half of the country destroyed; the World Bank estimates the cost of reconstruction to exceed €300 billion, a sum equal to what the global community provides in development aid for the entire world within a two-year period.

These figures point to just how important Syria’s economic and societal reconstruction is for the EU. At the same time, Berlin and Brussels are setting the terms for their political and financial commitments to ruler Assad and his supporters in Moscow and Tehran: these demands range from introducing a viable and credible political process in which all members of the population can participate to establishing a secure environment that is grounded in a functioning rule of law.

Fact Sheet Syria, 09 March 2019 – 15 April 2019, No. 73.
Institut für Friedenssicherung und Konfliktmanagement (IFK), Vienna.
Compiled by: IFK MENA-Team (Walter POSCH, Stefanie HARING, Benedikt ZANZINGER,
David FUSSI).

And while these EU demands make sense, many of the regional powers affecting events in Syria do not share them. Yet at the same time, these regional powers want to see Europe commit to the financial and technical reconstruction of Syria. 

This state of affairs poses an opportunity for the EU to assert its interests through its European Neighbourhood Policy instruments – even if the EU's potential to shape events is constrained by the influence of key actors in the region, namely Russia, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Moreover, Europe’s transatlantic partner, the United States, is withdrawing militarily from eastern Syria since the so-called Islamic State has been driven out. The capricious nature of President Trump’s Middle East policy has also resulted in a shift of responsibility onto Brussels’ shoulders. 

“Antagonisms in the EU's Neighbourhood – Overcoming Strategic Deficits with regard to Syria – How the EU Can Demonstrate Resolve and Respond to the Interests of Regional Powers": This new policy brief from the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s “Strategies for the EU Neighbourhood” project explains the new parameters of the Syrian conflict and analyzes the regional policies of Russia, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel. The policy brief also provides suggestions as to how the EU and its member states can better assert their interests in the difficult context of their southeastern neighbourhood, and how they can respond more effectively to the Middle East policies of the key states identified above. 

The proposals for European commitment in Syria range from meeting minimum criteria for reconstruction aid to an independent and reliable monitoring of investments to taking legal action and prosecuting against war crimes. 

In addition, the policy brief recommends that the EU and its foreign ministers reduce the risks of escalation in the broader Middle East by engaging in intensive shuttle diplomacy between Washington, Moscow, Ankara, Tehran, Riyadh and Jerusalem. At the same time, Brussels, Berlin, London and Paris should extend their EU/E-3 diplomacy format to include a member state from central or central eastern Europe and thereby ensure that the interests of more recent EU member states are included. 

The Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Eastern Europe expert Miriam Kosmehl and Middle East expert Christian Hanelt collaborated with nine experts on Russia, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel, as well as experts on European foreign policy and international relations to author this policy brief.  

With its “Strategies for the EU Neighbourhood” project, the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Europe’s Future programme targets the development of proposals on how the EU can help establish a ring of stable states – from Belarus to Syria to Morocco – in its immediate neighbourhood.