During 2019, the original Syrian conflict entered its closing phases, except for the battlefields of Idlib and in the north east. As a result, conflict dynamics have become somewhat easier to read, as the regime and its key allies have shifted towards a triumphalist ‘post-war’ narrative and corresponding governance styles, deal-making and decision making. These developments can be witnessed in three interlinked spheres: security, civil, and political economic practices. Together, they largely form the Assad regime’s political economy, which – although poorly understood due to limited access – is crucial to understand to assess the negative externalities likely to result from its wartime survival.
The current security, civil and political economic practices of the Syrian regime are not informed by any serious consideration of international law, diplomatic pressure from countries other than its close allies, or human rights norms. Instead, survival, securitisation and coercive operating styles dominate. Hard power remains the regime’s key currency. As a result, soft power – whether it be diplomatic, financial or economic – is largely ineffective in influencing the regime’s calculations, incentives or intensity preferences.
This paper analyses six negative externalities that are likely to result from the re-entrenchment of the Syrian regime: 1) risk of conflict relapse due to economic pressures; 2) the politics of refugees; 3) risks and instrumentalisation of terrorism; 4) regional instability; 5) humanitarian culpability; and 6) deterioration of the international legal order. These externalities are interconnected and emerge from the political economy of the regime – the accumulation of its security, civil and political economic practices.
It is these externalities that will have an impact on EU policy priorities and interests – mostly via Turkey, which has evolved from buffer into conflict party. The EU’s irrelevance in the realm of hard power presents it – and its member states – with the uncomfortable reality that it lacks leverage to influence the short- to medium-term future of the Syrian conflict. Without a willingness to mobilise political, military and financial pressure in a synchronised manner – based on a strategy of confrontation or, indirectly, through dialogue with and influence over those actors who have a significant degree of hard power capital and capabilities vis-à-vis the regime (primarily Russia and Iran) – the EU has few levers to pull. At present, the EU only has such tools available in the economic sphere – and only uses them to a limited extent.
However, even if the EU were to belatedly pursue a form of hard power strategy, it no longer offers a remedy for addressing the negative externalities mentioned above. This is because the positive alternatives to the Assad regime have been eliminated during the civil war. The regime’s divide-and-conquer strategies, as well as the fragmentation and radicalisation of the opposition, have silenced the original, overwhelmingly progressive, demands of the protestors who took to Syria’s streets in early 2011. No major remaining armed or political opposition group with significant influence in Syria represents these demands any longer.
Nevertheless, the EU is not without policy options to address the negative externalities discussed in this paper. In terms of interventions that directly influence regime interest, it could: expand its targeted sanctions by adjusting these more quickly to include new entities and individuals that spring up in the ‘whack-a-mole’ game of sanction evasion; demand much more stringent application of humanitarian principles in the provision of such aid (especially if it is further increased), thereby reducing resource flows to the regime; and creatively develop an accountability mechanism that can operate in a way that is linked with, but independent of, the United Nations (given Russia’s veto).
In addition, it could provide much more support to Syrian refugees in the region, focused on providing them with greater rights and better protection. It could also engage in the long overdue repatriation of European ‘foreign fighters’ from the region in a controlled manner – so that they can face criminal justice in their home countries, rather than becoming a blackmail and fear factor that local actors can exploit.