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Rebuilding Syria: Is ‘Selective Cooperation’ Between Russia and the EU Possible?

The difference in approaches of Russia and the EU to the reconstruction of Syria is influenced by the current state of Russian-American relations, although there is a growing understanding in the European Union that the geopolitical interests of European states should not always coincide with the interests of their unpredictable Euro-Atlantic ally, writes Valdai Club expert Alexander Aksenyonok.

After the well-known events in Ukraine in 2014, confrontation, sanctions and counter-sanctions have become the new normal in Russia’s relations with the EU member states. Both parties agree that a return to the previous model of “business as usual” in the near and medium term is impossible. At the same time, there is a mutual understanding that the relationship between Russia and the EU, even at a low level, haven’t become as aggravated (characterised by mutual accusations and claims) as between Russia and the United States. Despite their basic differences, Moscow and Brussels have a sufficient number of common interests and common challenges, which make it possible to conduct a dialogue at an official level and within the framework of public diplomacy on a wide range of issues of foreign policy and bilateral relations in order to find forms and methods of interaction amid the changed conditions.

During the work of the EU-Russia Expert Network on Foreign Policy, the participants agreed to use the term “selective cooperation” as an alternative to “partnership”, which was used prior to the crisis. This is considered as a process by which the parties can map out areas for possible interaction in order to prevent further deterioration and maintain the precarious status quo.

The situation in Syria is included among nine high-priority topics which have been proposed for discussion between Russia and the EU. On a number of issues, the positions of Russia and the EU differ, but at the same time, there is a common interest in the fight against the persisting terrorist threat and in the restoration of post-war Syria as a territorially integrated state by achieving a settlement that would ensure inter-Syrian accord and regional stability, in accordance with the basic international legal documents, primarily Resolution 2254 of the UN Security Council. While the United States is not directly affected by the threats emanating from this extended conflict, for Europe and Russia the preservation of an explosive situation in Syria is fraught with the danger of new outbursts of terrorist activity, the rise of extremist ideologies, and an influx of refugees, not so much for political reasons, as for economic reasons. 

The circle of the most significant disagreements includes three groups of issues directly related to the conditions of the “economic rehabilitation” of Syria, the sanctions regime and the mechanism for providing the nation with international humanitarian assistance.

The European Union is not directly involved in the Syrian conflict, but it is one of the major donors in providing humanitarian and economic assistance to Damascus through its structures, through the UN and through non-government organisations. Naturally, the leading EU member states are also interested in finding their place, as political players. The Europeans understand this role, which uses economic instruments on political terms and applies sanctions pressure, although the range of sanctions from the EU is not as wide and painful as from the United States, taking into account the so-called Caesar Law, which recently entered into force.

The regular (since 2017) holding of donor conferences on Syria jointly with UN organisations is viewed by the EU leadership not only as fundraising, but also as confirmation of its long-term strategic interests in the Middle East region, which is adjacent to Europe. The fourth and last conference of this kind was held in Brussels from June 22 to June 30 via video link, due to the epidemiological conditions. In the first few days, discussions took place on the difficult situation in Syria with representatives of Syrian civil society in Damascus and abroad, and then on June 30 at the ministerial level. On behalf of Russia, the conference was attended by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin, who deals with the Syrian settlement.

The Conference was able to mobilise new commitments of 6.9 billion euros, of which two-thirds came from the European Union. Of the total previously collected donor funds for distribution in 2020, $ 3.4 billion is intended to support 9 million Syrians, including internally displaced persons, in need of humanitarian assistance, and $5.2 billion has been earmarked for aid to 6 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries (Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt). Since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, according to the EU, its countries and economic agencies have allocated various types of assistance totalling more than 20 billion euros.

The announced figures look rather impressive. As for the practical implementation of donor promises and their use in order to restore the economy, which was destroyed during the war, the picture is less rosy. Donors themselves often violate their commitments. The direction of aid is hampered by bureaucratic slingshots and the absence of an agreed-upon international mechanism for its distribution. But the main obstacle on the part of the European Union is the political conditions of the allocation of funds for the reconstruction of the destroyed infrastructure and the continuation of the policy of sanctions, which also hinders the humanitarian activities of companies and various NGOs.

In this sense, the Brussels conference only confirmed the previous positions. As stated by EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell, “The European Union will take part in the reconstruction of Syria only if there is a stable political process, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Otherwise, all efforts are in vain.... Syria currently does not meet any of these criteria.” There have been no changes in the sanctions policy, although the EU leadership argues that “restrictive measures” are not targeted at the civilian population, nor are there restrictions on humanitarian aid and medical supplies. The Russian representative, for his part, stressed that “one of the reasons for the current difficult situation is also unilateral sanctions, the negative effect of which cannot be compensated for, either for donor contributions or declared humanitarian aid, which in practice do not work.”

The difference between the officially-declared approaches of Russia and the European Union is indeed considerable and seemingly irreconcilable. At the same time, the situation in and around Syria is changing rapidly.

In contrast to 2016, when the European Union began raising donor funds, the fourth conference, held under the pretentious title “Supporting the future of Syria and the region” took place amid the special conditions prevailing in Syria in the tenth year of the armed conflict. The most crucial phase of the civil war is over, but the conflict itself is far from being resolved. The real short-term challenges lie in the precipitous deterioration of the socio-economic situation, in the absence of real progress in the intra-Syrian dialogue. A mood of hopelessness and alarming expectations is ripening in the international community and among Syrians of various political orientations, as the summer 2021 presidential elections approach.

In addition to the stubborn reluctance of Brussels to deal with the Syrian government, the negative dynamics of the Syrian conflict is also due to the position of Damascus itself. Financial damage and material destruction have reached such proportions that the task of reconstructing its economy has become almost impossible for Syria, no matter how governments change, or for any sole state or even group of states.

Despite the fact that the crisis in the Syrian economy, which was not so noticeable during the war years, began to rapidly escalate since the beginning of last year, the Syrian leadership has declared its unwillingness to receive help from “accomplices of terrorism”, thereby politicising these issues. Indicative in this regard are the statements of the Syrian Foreign Minister of July 23 on the need to use the Caesar Law as “an opportunity for the development of the national economy, the implementation of the principle of self-sufficiency and the strengthening of versatile relations with Syria’s friends and allies”. The Syrian Foreign Ministry condemned the Brussels conference as “interference in the internal affairs of Syria”, local officials and the media are returning to exhausted rhetoric about the existence of some kind of “external anti-Syrian conspiracy” and have called for “resilience and resistance.”

The reality is that there are practically no prerequisites for the implementation of major projects for the post-war reconstruction of Syria. And we are not talking about reconstruction as such. Most Syrians struggle to survive in the face of constantly rising prices, food scarcity, limited access to fuel and disrupted livelihoods. Volatile commodity markets and the coronavirus pandemic have objectively limited the financial and economic opportunities of Russia and Iran. Under these conditions, a real economic “rehabilitation” of Syria is possible only if efforts are coordinated at the international level. This is the point where a convergence of interests would make it possible to link economic and humanitarian aid with progress on the political track in one stabilisation package.

Currently, the new EU leadership is revising its activities in the main foreign policy areas, taking into account global changes, including the consequences of the coronavirus. There is a current of thought among circles of policy analysts in Europe and among some European politicians that Europe’s strategy on Syria is due for revision. There is an understanding that a “political transition” contingent upon the removal of Bashar Assad from power is neither pragmatic nor realistic, and the current policy of economic pressure and diplomatic isolation has not yielded results. The resulting impasse complicates the humanitarian situation, complicates the return of refugees and creates the preconditions for a renewed escalation of violence in the future. A number of European states (Italy, Poland, Austria, Greece, Hungary), in violation of internal “discipline”, are restoring tacit contacts with Damascus, discussing the possibility of returning embassies and partially unblocking trade and economic ties.

The “fine tuning” of European policy on the principle of “more in exchange for more” is being put forward as an alternative to the current course, which has revealed its ineffectiveness. This adjustment involves the partial lifting of sectoral sanctions and a number of other restrictions, which would help to ease the living conditions of the Syrians, in exchange for concessions from the Syrian government in terms of the practical implementation of the requirements of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and close cooperation for this purpose with the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General in preparation for the upcoming presidential elections.

Can Russia and the EU interact constructively on the Syrian track? To make it possible, there must be a joint understanding of what exactly and in what order is required of Damascus and what concessions the EU is ready to make in the event of a change in the “behaviour of the regime”. In this regard, the role of Russian diplomacy in the search for common ground between Brussels and Damascus seems irreplaceable and timely. If Europe takes the path of changing its current strategy of sanctions, much will depend on the extent to which Russia, for its part, is ready to adhere to a holistic approach, which implies reaching compromise agreements simultaneously in three areas – reform of the constitutional and political structure of Syria, economic recovery, and the establishment, in agreement with the Syrian authorities, of an international mechanism for the distribution of humanitarian aid, taking into account the concerns of all parties.

Of course, the views of Russia and Europe have more differences than common features regarding the reconstruction of Syria. The difference in approaches of both sides is influenced by the current state of Russian-American relations, although there is a growing understanding in the European Union that the geopolitical interests of European states should not always coincide with the interests of their unpredictable Euro-Atlantic ally.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.