An end to the conflict in Syria may seem a distant prospect, but it is of paramount importance to start planning now for the Syrian people’s future. It is time for the EU to think hard about taking the lead in a field where it has both expertise and money—postconflict reconstruction. Amid drawn-out negotiations, there are clear steps the EU can take to help the Syrian people.  

Marc Pierini
Pierini is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on developments in the Middle East and Turkey from a European perspective.
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The United Nations, the United States, and Russia are engaged in protracted diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis, while China and the European Union are relegated to the sidelines. Agreement has proven difficult. Russia still resupplies the Assad regime with ammunition, and as a result, its image among most Syrians is calamitous. The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, now the widely recognized representative of the Syrian people, along with its Western supporters continue to call for Assad’s departure from power. And within Syria, it is far from certain that the ruling family has yet realized that it has reached a dead end internally and internationally. 

Diplomatic choreographies aside, what matters in these early days of 2013 is how to plan for an international effort to support the rebuilding of Syria once the political situation in the country has stabilized. This is not premature. On the contrary, forward planning is a must.

Regardless of when that stabilization occurs, it will take momentous efforts to restore normalcy in the country. The human and material devastation is staggering. Hundreds of thousands of children and adults have been injured and have suffered deep psychological wounds (dead siblings, orphaned children, rape, and torture), and families have been separated and displaced. Public and private buildings have been destroyed all over the country, which is littered with unused ammunition and ordnance, creating immense dangers for civilian returnees. Stocks of chemical weapons are perhaps more loosely controlled, the economy is in shambles, and administrative structures have all but collapsed.

A five-pronged strategy is needed to overcome these obstacles and set postconflict Syria on the path to recovery. And the European Union can play a central role in the efforts.

First, the international community should focus on the human elements of the crisis: helping returnees reunite with their families, sheltering those whose homes have been destroyed, supplying vast amounts of basic commodities (mattresses, blankets, cookers, food) to those most in need, and helping with home repair and rebuilding. Specialized international agencies and NGOs should be mobilized alongside national NGOs.

The second element concerns the health and education systems. Hospitals, clinics, and schools need equipment, staff, and supplies to help in the recovery process. Most of the wounded have been treated in a summary way, and many are in need of secondary surgery, prosthetics, and rehabilitation. The need for psychological support is also immense, not least for the children. Here too, specialized international NGOs should be involved alongside the Syrian doctors and medics who have kept working under horrendous circumstances. 

Third, the country’s struggling infrastructure needs to be restored. Roads, sanitation, energy, telecommunications, and water supply facilities have been devastated. In addition, a massive cleanup of military ordnance and equipment as well as civilian scrap vehicles is required. Not least, chemical weapons stocks should be secured and destroyed under international agreement and supervision. This will probably call for a combination of military and civilian expertise.

The fourth aspect involves restarting the Syrian economy and restoring agricultural, industrial, and trade activities. The proper incentives and self-help schemes should be put in place, while fair and equitable access to funding should be ensured. 

The fifth element is related to governance and is probably the most difficult component of the strategy. The focus should be on assisting local and national administrations to reorganize and resume the management of public services. Reinserting civil servants, the police, and the military into society will be an extremely delicate task. Getting the civil registry right (that is, counting the deceased), transitional justice efforts, public-assets recovery, and combating corruption should be high on the agenda.

None of this will be easy, as past experience in postconflict management shows. The UN system will probably take the lead, experts will pile up evaluations and diagnoses, NGOs will compete for visibility, and individual countries will want to show leadership. The new Syrian government, whatever its composition, will have to rely in part on structures held over from the previous regime that are by now largely discredited. Of course, the various components of the National Coalition, not least the commanders of the Free Syrian Army, will also struggle for their share of responsibility in the reconstruction process. Ideological battles will not be far under the surface. Indeed, the road will be fraught with dangers. 

It is too early to envisage the kind of international framework under which such massive efforts will be planned, agreed, funded, implemented, and supervised. But some sort of UN-sponsored agreement with the new authorities will be required in order to ensure full acceptance by the Syrian people and the international community. Individual Arab states, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, may want to play a major financial role, while international agencies such as the World Bank will also naturally have a central part. 

The European Union is the unknown factor. It has been conspicuously absent so far from each and every phase of the core negotiations during the Syrian crisis. The EU’s lack of influence on the political aspects of the Syrian crisis is not surprising given the way the Lisbon Treaty is translated into institutional arrangements. “Foreign policy” responsibilities are separate from “operational” issues, and there is no effective link between the European External Action Service, the EU’s foreign policy arm, and the European Commission, its executive body. In this new context, the EU has a harder time generating relevant initiatives combining foreign policy positions with concrete actions on the ground.

But helping with Syria’s reconstruction is not about debating the virtues of the Lisbon Treaty. It is about concrete action in favor of desperate Syrian citizens. Syria requires more than just another EU foreign policy statement to be promptly archived. The European Union should act in a way worthy of its economic power and international responsibilities and develop a plan for postconflict Syria.

The European Commission should spearhead the effort. Postconflict reconstruction in Syria is an operational issue well-suited for the body, which has both the funds and the technical expertise for humanitarian assistance, development support, trade and economic policies, and sector support. This time around, there is no excuse for inaction—not even a lack of funding. 

In devising concrete help for Syria, though, the Commission should avoid its usual bureaucratic tendency to channel assistance mostly through governmental structures. In a post-Assad context, this will not work and will result in waste of money. 

Civil society should take the lead, both inside and outside Syria. There are many NGOs that have both expertise in this area and readiness, and the EU should rely on them rather than on a newly inaugurated government or discredited structures such as the old regime’s “fake” NGOs. A formidable strength has emerged during the Syrian revolution: the amazing capacity of the Syrian people, of all beliefs and affiliations, to take responsibility and cope almost on their own with the struggles of daily life in a devastated Syria. These achievements should not be ignored. On the contrary, they should be acknowledged, and what works should be supported from outside.

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, with Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs and Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Štefan Füle, should and come up with a clear blueprint of what the EU can offer. Their initiative should focus on the five-pronged strategy: alleviating human suffering, rebuilding Syria’s health and education systems, repairing infrastructure, bolstering the economy, and addressing issues of governance.   

By so doing now, the European Commission will be fully ready when the time comes to extend, on behalf of the EU, a helping hand to the Syrian people. It is not too early to signal publicly to the desperate Syrian people that the EU is ready to help them stand on their own feet.