Ten years ago this month, Syrians thronged the streets in cities across the country and protested against Bashar al-Assad’s government in what seemed like a promising beginning to usher in change. Egyptians and Tunisians had recently overthrown their dictators and there was optimism in the air that Syrians might oust theirs too. European governments – which had been encouraging democracy in the region – were thrilled to see the uprising at first and thought of it as a long-overdue fight by the people to achieve democratic governance.

However, Europe soon looked at the uprising with caution and concern rather than as an opportunity to support Syrians, as various Islamist groups emerged on the scene. The political Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, who had challenged Hafez al-Assad’s regime in the 80s, played a prominent role in the popular protests. They were a more moderate participant and a real challenger to the autocratic regime.

But the emergence of extremist Islamist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra – which swore allegiance to the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda – played right into the hands of Assad, who tried to weave the narrative that jihadists, not the Syrian people, were challenging his regime.

The emergence of extremist Islamist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra – which swore allegiance to the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda – played right into the hands of Assad.

Then came the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL, aka ISIS or Daesh). It conquered territory nearly the size of Britain along the Syria-Iraq border and unleashed mayhem, reaching across the Mediterranean in Europe too.

The most barbaric terrorist outfit the world had ever seen, ISIL established a so-called Islamic caliphate and lured young Muslims from all over the world to become its fighters. Among ISIL’s prime target groups were disaffected European Muslims who made their way to Syria through Turkey and joined the outfit in large numbers. Suddenly, the Syrian war was not a distant conflict but an immediate security threat to Europe.

ISIL beheaded Western journalists and aid workers on camera and widely publicized the videos online. It called on resident Muslims to conduct terror attacks inside European countries. With its head office in Raqqa, in Syria, ISIL aimed its propaganda at inciting attacks inside Europe.

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In 2015, as Syrians fled to Europe to escape ISIL, Assad, and the Russian bombs, they were met with suspicion. Most Europeans knew little about Syria other than it was at war and that it was the nation ISIL provoked attacks against their countries from.

This lack of knowledge coupled with deeply-ingrained Islamophobia and fear of a cultural clash were used by the far-right in Europe to ensure their political rise. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians paid off their life savings to smugglers to first ferry them across the seas and then help them cross into other European countries from Turkey. While Syrians reached land with hope for a better future, the scenes of their arrival terrified xenophobic and racists Europeans, exacerbating the rise of populism across European countries.

While Syrians reached land with hope for a better future, the scenes of their arrival terrified xenophobic and racists Europeans, exacerbating the rise of populism across European countries.

Many in Europe expressed disdain for the incoming refugees, viewing them as economic migrants, even jihadis claiming to be refugees. The biggest fear that the far-right propagated and exploited was the idea that ISIL was sending in its agents among the refugees.

For example, Germany Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) – a far-right euro-skeptic party – jumped on the anti-Syrian bandwagon in the name of protecting German identity and way of life. It secured a significant number of votes in the last elections and became the leading opposition party. Now inside the Bundestag it could impact policy.

France, Hungary, Italy, and Austria, too, witnessed a rise of the right while the United Kingdom voted for Brexit partly because of the fear of being flooded with refugees.

The Syrian war has changed European politics, forever. Instead of importing Western-style democracy, Syrians had exported themselves to democratic European countries. But the success of the far-right in Europe revealed Europe’s racist underbelly in response to their arrival, therefore creating further difficulties for displaced and fleeing Syrians.

Experts say European governments saw the Syrian crisis through the lens of internal security and migration because of domestic political pressures, and in doing so lost a momentous opportunity to bring about positive change in Syria. Europe responded to the uprising in a lackadaisical manner and let the events unfold instead of playing a meaningful role in shaping developments on the ground. It sat back and watched instead of pushing international actors towards more constructive positions.

Europe let the poorly armed rebels in Syria take on Assad and the Russian might. Some say refusing to intervene militarily was the cardinal mistake that spread discontent among Muslims in Europe, particularly Sunnis, many of whom obeyed the call of ISIL to join its ranks, ostensibly to support their coreligionists against the Syrian regime. Others say that while Europe’s post-conflict interventions to try and bring about political reconciliation might not have succeeded, it’s hard to determine that the results of a military intervention would have been better.

They argue the real lesson seems to be that meaningful and lasting reforms in Syria, as in other Arab countries, need a long-term strategy that envisages bottom-up transformation. Replacing Assad’s dictatorship with democratic institutions needs concerted effort by the Syrian intellectuals, most of whom are currently in exile in Europe.

Replacing Assad’s dictatorship with democratic institutions needs concerted effort by the Syrian intellectuals, most of whom are currently in exile in Europe.

These are the people that could turn into future leaders of the war-torn country. Assad is firmly ensconced in the president’s chair in Syria and won’t leave, not even under pressure of American and European sanctions. But one day, if Russia changes its mind, and it might, there is a possibility of replacing him.

Today, a divided European Union seems, even more, less inclined towards taking on the dictators. It is instead warming up to some of them in the region, for instance, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Hence, while Europe has failed the Syrian people in their struggle for change, the Syrian conflict has unquestionably changed the politics in the European continent. Europe may still want to claim the position of harbinger of human rights, but its response to the war in Syria has revealed it isn’t prepared or willing to do much to protect these rights elsewhere in the world.