In the wake of the Arab Spring revolts in 2011, the Syrian government launched the brutal repression of its own anti-regime protests, leading to a still ongoing civil war. As a result, the EU and its member states decided to terminate their diplomatic relations with President Bashar Al-Assad’s government. Now, ten years later, the situation has drastically changed. Up until 2015, it appeared that Assad’s regime might fall, but Russia’s intervention in the conflict has allowed Assad to regain almost full control of the country.
Southern Europe, the Balkans, and Realpolitik
Since Assad “won” the presidential elections in May, most European countries from the Eastern Mediterranean have re-established some level of diplomatic representation in Syria. The moves can be understood in the context of their tense relations with Turkey, Assad’s principal foreign nemesis. Turkey has been implicated in the Syrian conflict since April 2012. By supporting different factions opposed to Assad, it sought to secure its southern border from the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), which is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and is considered a terrorist group.
Facing a diplomatic spat with Ankara over Eastern Mediterranean energy resources, Greece and Cyprus are both in the process of re-opening their embassies in Damascus. Far-right governments from the Balkans, with strong ties to Russia, have also re-established relations with Syria. Hungary re-opened its Embassy in Damascus and appointed a Chargé d’Affaires.
Facing a diplomatic spat with Ankara over Eastern Mediterranean resources, Greece and Cyprus are re-opening their embassies in Damascus.
In addition to influencing the EU’s pro-Russia foreign policy, Turkey has played an important role in the Union’s refugee policy. In 2016, Ankara accepted a deal that saw most refugees and asylum-seekers stay in Turkey, instead of going to other European countries. But it also didn’t hesitate to use it as leverage against the EU. A threat not taken lightly by governments fearing “Islamization” and the “great replacement.” They have therefore seen recognition of Assad’s presidency as the best way to keep more refugees from arriving in Europe.
Western Europe’s Incentives
Countries in western Europe are also softening their anti-Assad-regime policy. France, for example, was once among the most adamant in opposing the Syrian leader; almost going to war with Assad in 2012. Yet realism has pushed France to reconsider its stance.
Although officially the French government denies any ties with Assad, the Syrian Foreign Ministry still claims to have an Embassy in Paris. In fact, the Embassy’s website and phone lines are up-to-date and functional.
According to several Arabic news outlets and the Syrian Foreign Ministry, Damascus was even able to host expatriate voting in last May presidential elections at its Parisian Embassy. When asked about this during a press briefing that month, the French Foreign Ministry failed to deny the allegation, only saying that France didn’t recognize them as lawful. Adding to the validity of the claims is the fact that Duraïd Al-Assad – Bashar Al-Assad’s cousin, who resides in Paris – posted photos of himself voting at the Embassy on his Facebook account.
Furthermore, the Syrian Foreign Ministry’s account noted that Germany and Turkey did not allow any election operations from taking place in their respective countries. Considering the Syrian Embassy in Paris’ social media posts and communiqué regarding polling there, it’s highly unlikely the French intelligence services were unaware of the vote taking place in Paris.
If normalization isn’t on the table just yet, France may still have an incentive to establish some ties with Syria. A potential motive and first step could be France re-opening its Arabic language center in Syria in the coming years. The IFPO’s (Institut Français du Proche-Orient / French Institute of the Near-East) Syrian section — played an important role in assisting French diplomats and security officials with learning the language before 2011.
For other EU nations, a major reason to re-establish relations with Syria in the medium-term could be reconstruction. German institutions estimate the cost of reconstruction in Syria to be between US$250 and US$400 billion. As key allies to the regime, Iran and Russia are expected to get the more lucrative contracts. Yet, as they both face unstable economic situations, their financial contributions may be limited. Therefore, EU normalization – even if limited in its scope – would mean highly lucrative deals for European companies.
European businesses have long been involved in the Syrian construction industry. French cement firm Lafarge is currently under trial in France for allegedly having paid both the Assad regime and ISIS to keep its Syrian factory running. Documents leaked from the French intelligence services by Libération have also suggested that the French government knew about these payments and did not try to stop them.
Normalization Will Not Happen Overnight
According to Joseph Daher, Professor of International Relations at Lausanne University, it’s too soon to expect normalization, due to significant external factors involved. First, the Syrian file is intrinsically linked to the West’s relations with Iran, Daher explained, in an interview with Inside Arabia. As such, an improvement in relations between Tehran and Washington would be needed before opening the door to better relations between the EU and Syria.
The outcome of the 2022 French presidential election is also an important factor. If far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is elected, she will push the country closer to Russia, and therefore, to Syria. EU relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – especially the UAE – might also prompt European actors to further revive ties with Damascus—particularly Paris, a close ally to Abu Dhabi.
EU relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council might prompt European actors to further revive ties with Damascus.
Thus, the real question isn’t whether the EU will normalize its relations with Assad, but when.
The various policies enacted by EU member states between 2011 and 2016, which cut diplomatic and economic links to Damascus, can hardly be changed overnight. Indeed, cooperation in fields ranging from energy to cultural projects were halted; and sanctions against Assad as well as his entourage and allies were imposed, putting pressure on his supporters.
The trust that had been established between the regime and governments around the world was shaken during the brutal civil year and it will take years to rebuild. It’s also quite probable that public opinion will take even longer to sway, considering the disheartening images that have circulated from the war, such as the many children injured or displaced in the conflict. Therefore, nations hastily normalizing relations with Damascus could prove to be a poor decision domestically.
It’s hard to imagine that European institutions and Western countries will seek normalization before Syria’s war is over. And such a time can hardly be predicted. The US currently does not seem to have plans to leave Syria. Turkey has managed to enter deeper within Syrian territory, creating a buffer zone between its southern border and the Kurdish groups which it considers an existential threat. Moreover, Islamist militants, including ISIS, are still strongly implanted and could gain more territory at any moment.
Only time will tell what the future of any potential EU-Syria relations may hold.