More than eight years since the Syrian regime’s infamous slogan ‘Assad, or we burn the country’ was first heard during the initial months of protest in 2011, Syrians now find themselves left with both Bashar al-Assad’s regime and a burnt country – in the collective psychological, physical and institutional sense. In particular, Russia’s military intervention on behalf of the Syrian regime in 2015 helped to bring this reality about by boosting the chances of a regime victory. Since then, the EU and its member states have been working to craft a suitable policy response. This soul-searching journey is far from over, although it has found a temporary landing stage in the form of ‘no reconstruction support without a meaningful [and imagined, author’s edit] political transition’. During the past year, the dynamics of the Syrian conflict have slowed and become easier to read as the regime and its key allies have shifted into a kind of ‘post-war’ decision-making modus infused with a ‘totally and utterly triumphalist’ mindset. This presents a tremendous challenge to the EU and its member states as their already limited leverage is further reduced. And, as an otherwise helpful recent Crisis Group report failed to clarify, leverage to do what and why?
Beyond the policy rhetoric surrounding reconstruction, this paper provides an analysis of key negative externalities likely to increasingly manifest themselves as a result of the re-entrenchment of the Syrian regime. Such analysis is essential to any deliberation on disengagement, engagement and re-engagement with the Assad regime.
First, the paper sketches the contours of the current nature of the regime with a view to assessing, even if only approximately, what sort of interests it is likely to pursue over the next few years. Second, it assesses six types of negative externalities. Negative externalities are defined as indirect and costly consequences for the EU resulting from decisions taken by the Syrian regime and its main backers – Russia and Iran – that are currently insufficiently accounted for in EU policy because their effects typically manifest in a diffuse manner and in the longer term. They include the risk of conflict relapse due to economic pressures, the future of Syrian refugees in the region, terrorist networks, regional instability, the nature of humanitarian aid, and the deterioration of the international legal order. Finally, the paper outlines mitigating policy options for the Netherlands and other European countries.
Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami (2018), Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War. London: Pluto Press.
Frederick Deknatel (2019), ‘What Victory on Assad’s Terms Looks Like in Syria’, World Politics Review. Online: link (Accessed 12 December 2019).
Crisis Group (2019), Ways out of Europe’s Syria Reconstruction Conundrum. Online: link (Accessed 12 December 2019).
For such deliberations see: Van Veen, E. and O. Macharis (2020), ‘Hope springs eternal: EU options for dealing with the Assad regime’, Clingendael. Online: link (Accessed 14 May 2020).
Interviews with 15 researchers and (I)NGO staff in Europe, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and north-eastern Syria were conducted for this paper in October and November 2019 (in person and via Skype). Most interviewees chose to remain anonymous, either by not being quoted at all or by being referred to only as ‘analyst’ (with or without mention of their location). The paper also benefited from a policy expert workshop in March 2019.