This piece is part of the Global Dynamics of the Syrian Conflict series, in which Carnegie experts from all over the world analyze the strategic and geopolitical interests at play in the ongoing civil war. View the full series here.

Syria has recently become a major source of concern for Europe for two reasons. First, the lasting humanitarian tragedy and exodus caused by the ongoing civil war create a destabilizing situation for neighboring countries, which are either allies of the EU (Turkey is in NATO) or on friendly terms with the union (Jordan, Lebanon). Second, the fact that several hundred EU citizens have gone to Syria as jihadists raises concerns that they will return home and become the “enemy from within” in their countries of origin.

The EU’s interest in Syria was first substantially demonstrated by the country’s inclusion in the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, which was launched in November 1995 in Barcelona. Known as the Barcelona Process, this initiative was the first attempt to put in place an all-inclusive EU policy for the entire southern rim of the Mediterranean (with the sole exception, at the time, of Libya).

The process was based on the premise that stability and prosperity in Europe’s southern neighborhood was key to the EU’s own well-being. The goals of the alliance included fostering democracy and respect for human rights, facilitating trade, introducing liberal economic and social policies, and promoting civil society and cultural exchanges.

At the time, the EU was acutely aware of the difficulties it would face in applying these policies to Syria: a country led by a family clan, where no elections worthy of the name are held, where no democratic standards exist, and where human rights are disregarded on a daily basis. It was abundantly clear that the Barcelona Process would likely bring few benefits to the Syrian people. Nevertheless, the ambitious EU partnership was applied to the entire region, so there was no reason to exclude Syria upfront.

Marc Pierini
Pierini is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on developments in the Middle East and Turkey from a European perspective.
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When Bashar al-Assad assumed the Syrian presidency in June 2000, many hopeful commentators heralded the beginning of a “Damascus Spring.” But by March 2011, when peaceful civilian protests erupted in the south of Syria as part of the Arab Spring demonstrations, virtually all promises of reform had been long forgotten, and Assad’s reaction to the demonstrators has been overwhelmingly brutal. It has been clear that the Assad regime, by its very nature, would not contemplate any significant economic, social, or political reform.

Yet the stability of Syria has continued to hold strategic significance for the EU, particularly because the country has the potential to destabilize its neighbors (Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Turkey). For most of them, for instance, a very large and lasting outflow of refugees from Syria would pose significant problems. The EU is also directly concerned with the possibility of Syria remaining a land of indefinite instability, much as in Lebanon during its fifteen-year civil war, with no unified state and administration, no recognized power center, and a multiplicity of internal “borders” between chiefdoms of various sizes. In such a context, the uncontrolled circulation of weapons and fighters, the availability of chemical weapon stocks, and the back-and-forth movements of jihadists constitute the main worries.

A Limited EU Response

The eruption of the Arab Spring coincided with the EU’s implementation of its Lisbon Treaty and a new EU foreign policy architecture. In theory, the Lisbon Treaty was designed to facilitate a more coherent, efficient, and influential EU foreign policy. The reality, though, has proved much different, as the main effect of the Lisbon Treaty has been the concentration of foreign policy making in the hands of the EU’s “big three”—namely, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Humanitarian assistance was the EU’s first line of response to the violence in Syria, as it always is. Since March 2011, €2.6 billion ($3.5 billion) has been allocated by the EU and individual member states to support to assist Syrians in the country as well as displaced persons and refugees. But, due to the split between foreign policy tools that resulted from the Lisbon Treaty, the EU’s humanitarian assistance has been provided almost independently from its political action. A second line of response was the adoption of trade and financial sanctions, which certainly had a negative impact on some Assad regime figures, but not a decisive impact due to the limited amount of trade and investment between Syria and the EU.

At a political level, the EU, mostly through the “big three,” was active within the UN Security Council and the Friends of Syria. But calls by the EU and the United States for Assad’s departure quickly drew stern opposition from Russia, and the Syrian revolution became something of a proxy war between a hesitant West and a defiant Russia. The latter had ulterior motives, which soon became apparent in its support for the Eurasian Union and its stoking of the Ukraine crisis in 2014.

The blatant weakness of the Syrian opposition (due to its fragmentation between small groups made up almost entirely of exiled citizens with no power base at home as a result of decades of political repression) and the support given by Turkey and Qatar to Islamist groups opposing the Assad regime complicated the picture further, playing into the hands of both Russia and the Syrian regime.

From a military point of view, Europe’s attitude has essentially been to support the U.S. position. In such a situation, the EU’s military capability depends entirely on France and the UK (Germany has traditionally opted out of any foreign military operations). In 2013, however, the British prime minister decided to put British involvement in U.S.-led strikes on Syria to a parliamentary vote; the negative result left France as the United States’ only ally with operational capabilities.

EU politicians are well aware that the situation in Syria has little resonance with the European public, other than a diffuse humanitarian sensitivity. The fact that the Syrian civil war quickly came to be seen as a war by proxy between the United States and Russia probably had a further dampening effect on the European citizens’ sympathies. Lately, the emergence of a new, closer area of potential conflict with Russia, in Ukraine, has taken precedence in the minds of European politicians and citizens.

What’s Next?

From Europe’s perspective, the Syrian crisis is now a true humanitarian and political disaster.

The dramatic low point at which the country has arrived today has much to do with Russia’s assertiveness, for its own purposes, in the face of an almost nonexistent EU presence and a reluctant superpower, the United States. In other words, the political features of the United States (reluctance toward foreign intervention after its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) and Russia (desire to “reconstruct the empire” through the Eurasian Union and put an end to the Western-dominated world order that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union) have contributed to the Syrian conflict becoming one of the most entrenched in modern history.

The outlook is grim. The most likely prospect seems to be a de facto partition of Syria along the core interests of the Assad regime—that is, a Damascus-Homs-Latakia corridor remaining in the hands of the regime, with the rest of the country likely continuing, to various degrees, in a state of open rebellion. As dire as such a situation appears, this “solution” may fit the Assad regime’s tactical objectives.

Farcical presidential elections did not change the outlook for the country, where 6.5 million people are internally displaced and more than 2.5 million have taken refuge abroad. Syria is in shambles, and it will take immense international efforts to rebuild it, repatriate its population, and help Syrians reconstruct their lives. More importantly, from a Western standpoint, it is hard to see how even the most “mechanical” part of this momentous effort—physical reconstruction—can take place with the Assad regime still in power.

It is now clear to EU analysts that the Russian policy on Syria was perhaps only a rehearsal of what was to come in Armenia, Crimea, and Ukraine, and what may come later toward Georgia and Moldova—a blunt reminder that the current Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is determined to reconstruct the “periphery of the empire” either by economic means (by creating the Eurasian Union) or by military force (seen in Russia’s actions in Crimea and Ukraine).

Sadly, in such a geopolitical context, the continuation of the horrific Syrian conflict and danger of regional spillover might be overshadowed by the possible escalation of the Ukraine conflict, which will inevitably concentrate the energies of the EU and the United States.

The latest developments in terrorism activities linked to Syria might, however, trigger a change of opinion in Western countries regarding counterterrorism cooperation with the Assad regime. In the last days of May, a young U.S. citizen carried out a kamikaze operation in Syria for the first time, while a young French citizen, who had recently spent time in Syria, is the prime suspect in the killing of four visitors at the Jewish Museum in Brussels after being arrested in France. These are examples of the dire consequences of several recent trends: organized channels between several Western countries and Syria (as with Afghanistan before) to attract young “jihadists,” the “open-door policy” implemented by Turkey that lets such jihadists go to Syria and come back freely via the Turkish provinces of Hatay and Gaziantep, and the difficulty of tracking down the hundreds of such young citizens when they are back in their countries of origin. Belated counterterrorism cooperation has finally started with Turkey, but the question now arises of whether such cooperation between the West and the Syrian regime is possible.