The main external military actors are Russia, Iran (with militias including Hezbollah), Turkey and the U.S. (with two remaining military bases).
"The Syrian regime led by President Bashar al-Assad has not yet achieved a complete military victory, but with Russian and Iranian help, it has ensured that it cannot be forced to step down. So far the regime may have won the war, but probably not the peace," said Middle East expert Daniel Gerlach in an article published by Die Welt recently.
Efforts by the United Nations to find a political solution to the conflict in accordance with UN Resolution 2254 have been at a standstill for years.
For a "new Syria"
The EU has been supporting this UN-approved solution diplomatically (see EU Syria Strategy of 2017 and the declarations of the four Brussels Syria Conferences). In the long term, however, Brussels would like to see the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian state established and the state functioning as a respected neighbour within the framework of the direct neighbourhood.
This would mean a "new Syria" that would develop in the direction of states like Tunisia and Georgia, with stability and resilience based on pluralistic structures, the rule of law, good governance and inclusive social and economic participation. These are all criteria from which the Assad regime and the Islamist militias in Idlib are far removed.
The EU's current hesitant and cautious Syria policy can be explained by the following: (1) Europe seems to have little influence when it comes to changing the behaviour of the Assad regime. (2) Europe seems to have limited tools to apply pressure (member states are reluctant to use military force) and few available incentives to decisively change the behaviour of Russia, Iran and Turkey. (3) European governments are concerned about having to reintegrate IS fighters who hold European citizenship. (4) European governments want to prevent more Syrian refugees from leaving Turkey for Greece, Cyprus and Bulgaria. (5) There is growing controversy among EU member states over the degree to which Europe should cooperate with the Assad regime in reconstruction efforts, as well as different assessments of the effectiveness of sanctions and how to deal with Turkey and Russia.
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Even if the EU's policy towards Syria is cautious for these five reasons, the EU-27 should nevertheless become more active in the following diplomatic fields in order to prevent the Syrian conflict from further spilling over into the EU:
(1) Re-strengthening the consensus of the EU-27 through more intensive dialogue with critics of the EU-Syria strategy, which can also be done by integrating Poland and Italy into the EU/E3 policy format; (2) more comprehensive coordination with U.S. policy on Syria – starting with negotiating exemptions from U.S. sanctions for humanitarian reasons; (3) maintaining targeted EU sanctions and not letting the regime decide on the distribution of humanitarian aid, bypassing it instead by shifting involvement to other internal societal forces; (4) intensive shuttle diplomacy, with several EU foreign ministers simultaneously travelling between Washington, Moscow, Ankara, Tehran, Riyadh and Jerusalem to reduce regional confrontations related to Syria; (5) close monitoring of the activities of Syrian embassies in EU member states, prevention of illegal activities and issuance of passport substitutes to EU-based Syrians in order to deprive the regime of access and income; (6) engagement in a dialogue involving Syrian Kurdish decision-makers and Turkey, with the aim of having Syrian Kurds become full-fledged citizens of a "new Syria".
Syria on the to-do-list of the German EU Presidency
The Syrian conflict is also on the to-do list of the German EU Council Presidency, which is taking place in the second half of 2020. Syria is an important issue for Germany, which has welcomed over 800,000 Syrians as residents. Many are making use of opportunities for education and training – some young Syrians who came to Germany as refugees in 2015 passed their school-leaving exams in June 2020.
Some Syrians would like to return to a truly "new Syria" that is secure, free and pluralistic, and where they can participate in the country's economic and social reconstruction. Yet a safe return will not be possible in the foreseeable future – neither to Idlib nor to the area under Assad's control – as Syrian civil society organisations also pointed out in their appeal to the Fourth Brussels Syria Conference.
Christian Hanelt is senior expert for Europe, Neighbourhood and the Middle East with the Bertelsmann Europe's Future programme.