Whilst the European Union clearly wants to be seen as a proactive defender of human rights in Syria, the reality is a lacklustre response which, in places, actually deprives the Syrian people of the dignity it purportedly provides them with. The EU must now demonstrate that is about more than just rhetoric by upping its commitments to humanitarian aid and support for refugees in a state still ravaged by the scars of civil war. Although the Ukraine crisis is a currently reasonable and entirely noble cornerstone for the EU, it must not lose focus on its old friends, for whom it possesses a historic responsibility, as they come to its shores for the very help it claims to specialise in providing. Europe’s withdrawal of support for the Syrian Government is centred around human rights. Only when it upholds those human rights to the fullest itself can its well-meaning policy towards Syria and its people be considered successful.
The colonial footprint of the EU and its Member States is enormous. These nations undeniably bear a responsibility for the lack of economic development in many of their former colonies, which they often attempt to make up for via the maintenance of strong relations. A former French Mandate, Syria is no exception to this rule. Since its independence in the 1940s, the Middle Eastern nation has enjoyed largely positive relations with the European Union and its predecessor organisations, with the 1977 Cooperation Agreement between the two parties epitomising this bond. By 2008, this integration had deepened further through Syria’s involvement in the Union of the Mediterranean, a European initiative for which the stated aim is to promote sustainable development. It seemed the nation had been welcomed into the international community by its former colonial master.
2011 changed that. When the Syrian government clamped down on dissident protestors in major cities such as Homs, the European response was swift, driven by an institutional concern for human rights. As part of the ‘Assad Must Go’ policy of hawkish Western European states, the EU imposed sanctions on the Syrian elite, including Government officials and those associated with the energy sector. Member States including the Netherlands and Italy shut their embassies in Damascus, and unlike their counterparts in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, are yet to reopen them. Years of integration unwound when Syria was suspended from the Union of the Mediterranean. Against a backdrop of stark human rights abuses, these decisions seemed necessary and proportionate, but they were not paired with sufficient support for the general Syrian population, the individuals mostly directly affected.
Support, in this instance, is defined differently to how it might be in other contexts. Unlike the United States or Russia, the EU does not have a significant centralised military power, nor does it possess a direct stake in the region like Qatar or Saudi Arabia. What is does have are two key conduits of power, namely diplomacy and economics, but it has not been particularly proactive on either front.
Rather than conducting extensive diplomacy of its own, Europe took a back seat, remaining supportive of the ultimately failed mediating talks conducted by Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi. Its economic aid output to Syria was once fairly generous, but has fallen away in recent years, with just €3.7 billion donated in humanitarian and rebuilding aid by the EU itself in 2021. Whilst it is true that Member States have collectively provided a home for more than a million Syrian refugees, the majority of these have been in just two countries, Germany, and Sweden. Compared to the contributions of Syria’s neighbours, like Lebanon and Jordan, these figures are modest.
In fact, the EU has overall been fairly hostile to its old friends the Syrians. It comes at the severe disadvantage of not being a country in its own right, laying bare enormous intra-European divisions. Members such as Hungary have long been opposed to the acceptance of Muslim refugees, and the emergence of far-right parties positioning themselves as anti-immigration remains a near pan-European problem, with few exceptions. To portray this as a problem purely on the national level is, however, disingenuous. Despite ‘expressing concern’, for example, the EU did not formally punish Greece for its use, last year, of sound cannons to deter asylum seekers from entering its borders.
The EU is able to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses aimed at Syrians when its own members are the perpetrator.