When protests broke out against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the spring of 2011, local, regional, and international actors developed very different sets of expectations about how the crisis would unfold. The Syrian regime, for its part, believed the protests to be foreign-orchestrated and calculated that a rapprochement with the United States and the European Union would bring them to a halt.
These Western governments, on the other hand, believed that verbal support and policies intended to isolate the Syrian Government—notably sanctions and, later, the recall of their ambassadors from Damascus—would by themselves ratchet up momentum for the opposition and hasten the overthrow of Assad.
The Syrian people, meanwhile, expected more than oratories and weekend conferences in their honor; they expected action, aimed primarily at ending the bloodshed, then at a political transition that would lead to a democracy. Any political solution was impossible, after all, so long as the death toll was rising. But it took until August 2011 for the mounting death toll and deteriorating political situation to attract any serious international attention. By then, what little chance there may have been for a swift and conclusive resolution to the crisis had all but evaporated. True, the regime started it all by fumbling through Day One of the crisis, but by summer of 2011, it wasn’t only the regime carrying arms—the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was out there, so were wild armed groups, in addition to thugs carrying arms, and ex-cons who had taken to the street, investing in the chaos that had mushroomed in all four corners of the country. Syria had seemingly become a combination of everything: peaceful demonstrators, armed rebels, FSA, pro-regime stalwarts armed to the teeth, al-Qaeda inspired Islamic groups, and of course Turkish, Saudi, Qatari, and Iranian proxies. Amidst such an explosive background, statesmen in Brussels found themselves increasingly helpless and in fact clueless at how to deal with the Syrian scene.
International focus on the crisis in Syria since last August has been weak, indecisive, and ineffective, causing bitter disappointment among the ranks of the Syrian opposition and its sympathizers. No one has come forward with a clear road map for Syria, with the exception, ironically enough, of Russia and Iran— the principal allies of Damascus.
Over the past twelve months, the EU has based its approach to the worsening crisis on a policy of sanctions, intended to cut off funding and resources to the Syrian regime and create domestic pressure for its removal. They have succeeded in accomplishing neither of these aims. Instead, sanctions have harmed ordinary citizens and added further to their growing list of grievances.
The Syrian people have found themselves incapable of travelling, accessing foreign bank accounts or foreign currency, or even using their Visa or Mastercards. Sanctions have also given the Syrian people the impression that the EU, simply, does not know how to handle the crisis. It is undeniable that there has been a failure to properly address the humanitarian catastrophe that is at the root of the geostrategic crisis.
Recently, and after much deliberation, the EU took the decision to recall its member states’ ambassadors to Syria. While there is certainly some symbolic significance in removing recognition from the Syrian government, the practical implication is that the EU now has even less influence over Damascus, and significantly fewer eyes and ears on the ground. A similar scenario took place in 1956-57, when first the British and French Ambassadors, and later their American counterpart, were recalled from Syria. The result was that the Soviets were left unchallenged for influence over the Syrian Government; the Russians have enjoyed a privileged status in Damascus ever since. It is similarly easy to see how the EU’s current “hands-off” approach to the Syrian conflict could leave it out of the Syrian peace altogether.
Statements from European leaders have been unequivocal about the EU’s condemnation of the violence in Syria. But what the Syrian people need from the EU and the international community as a whole is not talk, but action. So far, there has been little attention paid to how to alleviate suffering or stand with the people. This has entirely undermined the credibility of the EU, alienating the Syrian street from those who ought to have been its greatest advocates.
If the EU remains noncommittal in its approach to the conflict, others will step in to determine the course of events there—and thus in the region as a whole. A conflict of this magnitude requires bold action and flexible, creative diplomacy; if the EU is to be redeemed in the eyes of the Syrian people—and if it is to have any say in the post-war settlement—it must prove itself capable of both.