The Syrian conflict: A security dilemma for the European Neighbourhood Policy
Airstrikes in Syria

The Syrian conflict: A security dilemma for the European Neighbourhood Policy

11 August 2020

As part of its global security strategy, the EU launched the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership with the 1995 Barcelona Declaration, as a framework for dialogue and cooperation towards achieving peace and security in the Mediterranean region. To complement this partnership, the EU established the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) in 2004, initially to foster good relations with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern neighbours, including Syria. Through the European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instruments, the ENP action plans encouraged political dialogue, economic reform, trade liberalisation, democratic reforms and the respect for human rights.

In the wake of the 2011 Arab spring which triggered the Syrian conflict, the EU sought to review the ENP strategies with a significant focus and comprehensive approach towards stabilisation of Syria. To that effect, it initiated the ‘SPRING Programme’ to support a democratic transition, freedoms such as freedom of assembly, and economic development (European Commision, 2011). This meant that Syria could benefit from the ‘more for more principle’, an initiative that rewards partners who are adapting to democratic reforms. (European Commision, 2011). However, persistent political oppression in Syria led to anti-government protests demanding regime change, and ultimately the civil war. This conflict sparked a major humanitarian crisis, with almost 400,000 deaths documented, six million people internally displaced, and over 5.5 million as registered refugees (SOHR, 2020; European Commission, 2020a; Stelzenmüller, 2019).

In 2015, the EU reviewed the ENP in an effort to maximise financial resources to react to security challenges posed by the conflict, including the rise of ISIS and increased flow of refugees across Europe and the Mediterranean (Galeazzi, 2015). The EU’s commitment to addressing issues in the region was later articulated by Johannes Hahn, Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, who emphasised that conflicts, terrorism and radicalisation are a threat to all states’ security, which makes stabilisation of the neighbourhood a pressing priority (European Commission, 2017).

EU policy and measures in Syria

The EU-Syria Association Agreement outlined the economic, political and social dimensions of the EU-Syria relationship, and in its 2007–2013 strategic framework for Syria, the EU stated the objective of Syria’s full participation in the ENP. The strategic framework advocated for objectives such as upholding the rule of law, citizen participation in politics, and the development of the civil society. However, the EU-Syria Association Agreement was never signed nor ratified, while the onset of the civil war drastically changed the context of EU-Syria relations. (Turkmani & Haid, 2016: 5– 6)

Damascus checkpoint

The EU’s external policy and action were redirected to focus on the implementation of diverse sanctions to coerce the Syrian regime into adapting to certain standards. In May 2011, the EU suspended the bilateral cooperation programmes with the Syrian government under the European Neighbourhood Policy, the EU’s regional programmes, loan operations and technical assistance by the European Investment Bank to Syria (Turkmani & Haid, 2016: 7). The Council of the European Union prohibited the financing of Syrian infrastructure projects and any disbursement or payment in connection with existing loan agreements. Moreover, the EU froze the draft Agreement on the EU-Syrian Association and imposed a ban on the importation of oil and petroleum products from Syria (Council of the EU, 2012). 

Another element of the EU’s response to the Syrian conflict has been efforts against weapons and military equipment exports to the country’s government. The EU had a total arms embargo in place for Syria from May 2011 until May 2013, including measures such as an obligation for member states to inspect their airport and seaports to ensure no armaments are shipped to Syria (SIPRI, 2013; Council of the EU, 2012). During the embargo, member states including the UK and France had lobbied for the ban to be relaxed so that they could provide the opposition forces with arms, and indeed from June onwards, restrictions were relaxed, except that items which might be used for internal repression remained banned (BBC News, 2013a, BBC News, 2013b, SIPRI, 2013). Export restrictions on technologies that may be used for internal repression continue to be a part of the EU’s sanctions regime against Syria; the restrictions were last extended in May, to remain in force until June 2021 (Council of the EU, 2020b). However, during the war, Daesh militants in Syria have been found to use weapons coming from EU countries, while a number of European countries have also been criticised for insufficiently accounting for risks of diversion from nearby countries such as Saudi Arabia, which has raised questions about the EU’s arms control policies (Besch & Oppenheim, 2019: 11).

With the threat of the coronavirus and the civil war reaching its tenth year, the EU advocated for a ceasefire, which indeed became effective on 5 March 2020 (European Commission, 2020a). Among other means, the European Commission has helped mobilise humanitarian aid to Syria by helping to organise annual international donor conferences since 2017, which have yielded a total of over €30 billion in donor pledges for Syria and the region around it (Council of the EU, 2020a). Indirect contributions, the European Commission has in 2020 donated €194 million in humanitarian aid to Syria (European Commission, 2020a). Humanitarian aid programmes have adapted to the pandemic, and of the support granted in 2020, €40 million has specifically been allocated for responding to the coronavirus (European Commission, 2020a). Besides Syria, the EU offers humanitarian assistance for other countries in the region, which host over 5 million Syrian refugees (European Commission, 2020a). Since the onset of the civil war, the EU’s assistance to Syria has amounted to €20 billion (European Commission, 2020a).

Even if the EU has used multiple tools for promoting political stability in Syria, the established measures and policies have not proven successful. The EU has to an extent adapted to its existing tools like the European Neighbourhood Policy, but it has fallen short of crafting innovative responses that would make Europe a core actor in finding a solution to the crisis. As it stands, the EU’s advocacy for good governance and respect for human rights have fallen on deaf ears, as the military context has offered few possibilities for civilian actors to promote substantial structural reforms in the country.

Written by Elsie Kiarie Defence Researcher at Finabel – European Army Interoperability Centre


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