The EU Strategy for Syria: Syrians’ Take

Author: Lea Pakkanen, Felm,

The Syrian war has left the EU in a second-tier position among international actors, with little influence over the course of events in Syria. Yet it has fallen to the EU countries to bear the brunt of the war’s humanitarian, economic, and security consequences. The EU’s future role in Syria will be a litmus test for a genuine common foreign and security policy. In March this year, the European Union launched a joint Communication on the elements of its strategy for Syria. This was a crucial moment for the country, as it marked the seventh year of the conflict and the resumption of the UN-led talks in Geneva, supported by a ceasefire mechanism established as a result of the talks in Astana. The Communication reiterates the European Union’s direct support for the UN process, notably through ongoing political dialogue with regional actors under the EU regional initiative on the future of Syria, and ongoing work to strengthen both the Syrian political opposition and civil society organizations. In April of this year, a major conference was held in Brussels to assess the outcomes of last year’s London’s donor conference and aggregate a common approach to Syria. Syrian civil society groups were invited to join and provide their inputs into the discussion.


The turn of events after the Brussels conference was rapid. In hindsight it is worth reviewing how relevant were the formal outcomes of the conference to the work of Syrian civil society? We asked four active members of diverse Syrian civil society groups working in and around the country what they think about the EU strategy. Below is a summary of the main messages they had for the EU, followed by a more detailed account given by each interviewee.


Messages for the EU


  • Efforts to support the resilience of the Syrian population should aim to create self-sustainable structures among communities, feeding directly into the local economy and supporting civil society at both the macro and micro level.


  • The EU should consider lifting economic sanctions that target institutions providing basic services as they exert negative effects on ordinary people and hurt the civilian economy, while they enhance warlordism and the war economy.


  • The EU should to a greater extent team up with local actors to get a better reading of happenings on the ground. Efforts should be exerted to mapping the key economic actors in the area, investing in projects that empower civilian networks, mainstreaming local governance structures, and prioritizing the issue of protection from violence from any perpetrator. It is understandable that the EU does not want to foot the bill for what other external actors have destroyed. At the same time, the EU will have a limited impact within the areas it seeks to support in the absence of more direct interventions.


  • The EU should strive to distribute aid equally and accompany aid with improved mechanisms for field monitoring and follow-up.




Supporting the resilience of the Syrian population and Syrian institutions is one of the EU’s key objectives. What does the concept of resilience mean at the local level and what is the key to supporting resilience in the country?


Assaad Al Achi (AA), Executive Director of Baytna Syria, Turkey: I used to think of resilience as resistance. Today, I consider it to mean helping communities to adapt to new realities by investing in basic infrastructure and the general wellbeing of people. Resilience is apolitical and goes beyond aid; it is more sustainable and structural in nature, feeding directly into the local economy. Despite the volatile context, it makes more sense to invest in a small agricultural project than it does to make people dependent on food aid programmes for years. By investing, you develop an economic cycle in the area to a point where it may become self-sustainable within a few years. Resilience helps mitigate the emergency. Crucial issues in creating and maintaining resilience in Syria include getting to grips with the local dynamics, understanding who the key economic actors are in the area, investing in projects to avoid having to invest in armed groups, understanding local governance structures, and taking care of the issue of protection from the militias on all sides, both in terms of beneficiaries and resources. In order to realize these initiatives, it is necessary to team up with local actors who have clear and constantly updated information on what is happening on the ground. Without such intelligence, one will end up causing harm.


Eva Ziedan (EZ), COSV, Lebanon: Resilience, people’s drive to survive, can materialize in both positive and negative ways. When people in a war situation try to find jobs without success, and turn to trafficking instead, it demonstrates resilience, but not in the positive sense. Yet when people from two opposing camps initiate a dialogue between them to resolve a problem, this exemplifies positive resilience. Similarly, when people are prepared to open their doors to provide shelter for others or distribute water from their wells to their neighbours, we have to appreciate what motivates such behaviour and focus on how we can support such local resilience mechanisms.


Anas Joudeh (AJ), Chairman of the Nation Building Movement, Damascus: If the EU wants to achieve stability and resilience in Syria, it should support the economy and reconciliation in the country, by supporting small and medium-sized enterprises. If the EU is reluctant to do this through the government, there are many INGOs that can bring it about, bearing in mind that it is vital to support the whole of Syria, not just certain regions. The issue of sanctions has to be raised too: economic sanctions exert a negative effect on ordinary people, not on the government. Most families are living on remittances from abroad, which arrive in the country through black money channels. Before Eid this year, there were long queues outside money transfer companies because everybody is dependent on them. Sanctions also have an impact on the medical sector.


Lama Khaddour (LK), civil society activist, Damascus: Resilience in Syria calls for people to demonstrate extreme flexibility in their everyday life. Resilience is demonstrated, for example, when Syrian students persevere and go to their schools and universities, despite the fear of missiles or explosions or power outages, and continue to excel and study by candlelight and torchlight. Supporting economic projects, especially agricultural projects, is vital for resilience; they generate income. Women’s leadership programmes are essential for investing in a generation of Syrian women equipped with the ability and willingness to construct the country at a time when many young men have migrated due to the conflict. It is also necessary to develop young people’s potential to help them secure employment opportunities, especially in the public sector.



How can the EU ensure conflict sensitivity where humanitarian and development aid is concerned?


AA: For the EU, the key to maintaining conflict sensitivity lies in being perceived as unbiased. Seventy per cent of the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) budget goes towards regime-held areas and the rest to opposition-controlled areas, where the need is greatest. This imbalance should be addressed. Of course, such balancing is difficult because it concerns the population and not the size of the territory. But the needs of the population are paramount. Aid delivery should be need-driven, ensuring the most appropriate Do-No-Harm policies are in place. So far, both the UN and the EU have been access-driven in their aid distribution, delivering supplies only to places that they can enter.


EZ: The EU’s support for the political process should be harmonized with the aid that the EU gives to people in need in Syria. Emergency aid, development projects and resilience measures should all be tools for ending the war. Vocational training and other forms of capacity building programs without market analysis and sustainability will not resolve livelihood problems; likewise striving for sustainability and resilience without taking into account the war economy cannot provide a solution. It is about the value chain, and we need to look at it as a complete entity. We should work with local communities, refugees and internally displaced persons as productive people, not passive recipients who just wait for the aid kit. We can work with them and support them in conducting business and sustainable work, using their expertise and the resources available in their areas. In this way, we can support those areas where there is a possibility of healing the rift between communities that are under different forms of control, through involving them in mutual efforts to reactivate the economic networks to achieve peace.


AJ: Distributing humanitarian and development support equally throughout Syria is a central element of conflict sensitivity. It should be noted that at present most of the Syrians in Syria live in government-controlled areas. During a WHO meeting, I heard that eight out of ten beds in hospitals in areas controlled by the government are occupied by patients coming from other areas. Attention has to be paid to distribution now that a great deal of aid supplied to Syria has ended up in the hands of armed groups. In Aleppo, medical supply warehouses fell under the control of these groups and the supplies were never distributed to the people as a consequence. Overall, I think that more emphasis should be placed on the development sector and less on the humanitarian approach. The policy of sending baskets of food should be replaced by creating stabilization, reconciliation, and resilience among the local communities.


LK: The European Union never turned its back on the Syrian people, especially those inside the country. But although the EU’s contribution to humanitarian aid was generous, it lacked proper field monitoring and follow-up where aid delivery was concerned, which contributed to widening the rift between the Syrians. The aid was centred on internally displaced people, although everyone was affected. This caused problems, especially in the poor host communities. Poorly planned aid-dumping can also lead to aid dependency and irresponsibility among the recipients.



What kind of advice would you give to EU decision-makers for the implementation of the strategy for Syria?



AA: I think the strategy addressed the points correctly, but is late in coming. Its heavy focus on territorial control is no longer very relevant. Stating that there will be no major reconstruction until there is a political agreement is a good thing, but stating what the political agreement should look like is unnecessary. If the EU wants to succeed, it will need to count on local actors and to stop relying solely on international NGOs. Knowledge on the ground resides in small local organizations. The EU needs to be open to ideas, and to think outside the box when it comes to the bureaucracy surrounding development and humanitarian aid. It is ridiculous to try to make people adhere to regulations in a war context – one has to be resourceful when addressing the key issues. Then there is the issue of cash, as money cannot be transferred to many areas. Para-legal systems have to be accepted and efforts should be made to improve the transparency of the informal hawala money transfer system.


EZ: It is fundamental to support civil society at both the macro and the local level by supporting the development of community resilience. To achieve this, we need to ensure that we support dialogue, peacebuilding, local livelihoods, and the building of local ownership of solutions and governance in “the whole of Syria”, instead of taking sides. Real stabilization will only be reached through collaboration between the EU and Syrian civil society, at the macro and the local level, by working in earnest on the national vision in the recovery plan based on human rights, equality, identity, and cohesion. It has to be ensured that those who have fuelled the conflict are not allowed to be the architects of the country’s future. The EU has a crucial role to play in returning the refugees and finding solutions to the scourge of terrorism, and is the international player with the greatest interest in achieving this.

AJ: At the moment, the most important thing that the EU can do is to take a more proactive approach. In the months to come, there will also be a need for technical support in the administrative system, combined with the rule of law. But for now, it is important to stop waiting for a political solution to the Syrian crisis to unfold and to reach a political decision within the EU to engage more proactively in the country and to start working. I can understand the EU’s hesitation, as it is not easy with the Syrian government demanding immediate political recognition. This is no mean feat, but the process can be built step by step. Achieving stability in Syria is of direct importance for the EU, unlike for the USA, which is involved in Syria with zero cost.


LK: Syrians are resourceful, open people, who are deeply rooted in Syria as a whole, and are not divided. I would advise the European Union to engage in dialogue with the Syrian people as a whole and to take the initiative to visit the country and listen to the aspirations of the people; Europeans should aim to activate their embassies and to lift the sanctions because such sanctions are detrimental to the people, not the government. Decision-makers need to focus on bridging the gap that has opened up between young Syrians abroad and young people inside the country. In addition, it is important to distribute aid equally throughout Syria, with proper field supervision. This will all help in combating terrorism, a consequence of the conflict to which the EU is far from immune, as we have seen. This should be a priority.



Author: Lea Pakkanen, Felm

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