For the Syrian people the New Year brings mounting casualties as the civil war moves into its 6th year. The first week of 2016 has been marked by an ever-worse humanitarian situation with reports of widespread starvation in the besieged town of Madaya. While the international community is increasingly engaged in military interventions in Syria, the European community has failed to respond to the new developments that have taken place in the past year.
During the initial phase of the civil war, the leading states within the European Union issued a harsh condemnation of the action of President Assad, with France leading the effort. This was followed up by sanctions on oil exports to Europe, thus heavily impacting the finances of the Syrian government by depriving it of a large part of its export earnings. Meanwhile, France issued a withdrawal of its recognition of Bashar al-Assad in favour of the Free Syrian Army.
The initial resolve has since stalled as the situation has gradually grown ever more complex, with the advent of the Islamic State as a major destabilizing factor. The experiences of the failed military intervention in Libya can explain why the western community has not attempted a similar intervention in Syria, even facing gross human rights violations by the Syrian government and other actors.
Even more important is the internal disagreement within the Union on the topic of Mr. Assad’s role in the Syria of tomorrow. France under Mr. Hollande and his predecessor Mr. Sarkozy staunchly opposes any involvement of Mr. Assad in the peace process, while Germany is not ruling out the possibility of a transitional presidency in the hands of Mr. Assad, albeit together with the moderate rebel factions. This disagreement has prevented the development of any substantial, common European proposals towards the peace process, which would carry a certain weight if put forward.
The European Union must not let their rightful despise for Mr. Assad block their peace initiatives. A peace proposal including the immediate removal of the current Syrian government is doomed to fail in light of Russian and Chinese opposition. As obvious as it might appear, the agreement of these two powers, who both hold a permanent seat in the Security Council, is essential to ensure any UN-sponsored action.
The continuation of hostilities will prolong and intensify as well as broaden the scope of the refugee crisis, as more people undoubtedly will be forced to leave Syria. Estimates for new refugee arrivals to Europe in 2016 lies in the range of 1.5 million, a much higher figure then the corresponding one for 2015. For a European Union whose integrity is currently under pressure from the divide on how to react to the crisis, this prospect highlights the utmost importance of moving towards a comprehensive peace process.
On the short-term the European Union should continue its proud humanitarian tradition. The humanitarian situation in Syria is critical, partly due to a severe lack of funding and an ever-growing number of people in need of aid. The member states of the Union, if they remain resolved in their dedication, possesses the necessary economic capabilities to sustain a humanitarian effort. The delivery of humanitarian supplies would bring the suffering of millions to an end, and even though it provides no actual peace, it will surely enable the people of Syria to sustain their existence until a peace agreement is agreed upon.
In addition, there is a momentum in several countries, especially Denmark, favouring support for aid to the region in order to prevent the massive movement of refugees. It provides the countries of Europe with a crucial opportunity to act after years of relative passivity. The aid, if delivered on a large scale, will serve to stabilize a fragile region by alleviating the sufferings of the millions of Syrian refugees residing in these areas, thereby containing the growth of extremist groups feeding off their plight. Development aid is key to ensuring the future reconstruction of Syria, and will be one of the areas where the European Union can contribute significantly to an eventual peace solution.
From this point there is a range of possibilities for a progressive European approach to the Syrian Crisis and towards a peace agreement. Firstly, the European Union can count on two permanent seats in the Security Council, which gives it a position of power in the UN decision-making process. In my opinion this gives the European countries the chance to bring together the warring factions – the United States on the one side, and Russia and China on the other – around a common peace approach. Finally, if all the nations of Europe speaks out with one voice, it might be convincing enough to gather support around an initiative that is European of character, and encompasses the principles of democracy, human rights and liberty.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Al-Masdar News.