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The U.S.-EU Divergence on Syria’s Future

As the scope and intensity of fighting in Syria diminish, international attention is shifting toward political issues: constitutional reform, refugee return, reconciliation, reconstruction and the design of a political process. Policymakers across much of the globe appear determined to pursue a path away from conflict and toward a new reality. Though the shape of the “new reality” may differ from one national perspective to another, the thread holding these various strands together is the pursuit of an eventual settlement to the conflict.

The U.S. Assessment of Syria

Fighting between the opposition and Syrian regime has indeed ebbed in recent months, as pro-regime forces violated and defeated internationally mediated “de-escalation zones” one by one. However, prospects for future internal stability look grim. None of the opposition’s original political reform demands has been met. In fact, the Syrian state that remains is more corrupt, more brutal and predatory and less capable of effective governance than in 2011.

The underlying drivers of extremism and terrorism remain; external interventions and interference in Syria’s territorial integrity have consolidated, and the regime loyalist community is growing increasingly restless about the realities of “post-war” life in Syria. Worse, much of Syria has been destroyed, with high-end U.N. reconstruction estimates now at nearly $400 billion. The economy is in tatters, with unemployment as high as 60 percent, employment in shadow economies nearly 80 percent, agricultural production at the same rate as in the 1960s, and the poverty rate at 83 percent.

As the military component of the war against Daesh appears to be winding down, with at least 50 percent of the jihadist movement’s final holdout in Hajin now liberated, the Trump administration is considering the longer term in Syria. U.S. Special Envoy for Syria Engagement Ambassador James Jeffrey has laid out a U.S. vision that stands on three pillars: an enduring defeat of Daesh, the removal of all Iranian and Iranian-backed forces from Syria, and an irreversible political settlement. Although Jeffrey has qualified these objectives by emphasizing that the U.S. is no longer seeking “regime change” and does not seek to engage militarily with Iran to secure its withdrawal from Syria, the U.S. approach now depends on sanctions and isolation.

In Jeffrey’s own words: “We will make it our business to make life as miserable as possible for that flopping cadaver of a regime, and let the Russians and Iranians, who made this mess, get out of it.”We have a broken and divided Syria that, eight years on, may be emerging from the worst phase of the civil conflict, but no genuine nor durable stability — much less recovery and prosperity — is available. Thousands of miles away in America, as Jeffrey’s unvarnished words, imply, “This status quo is not only acceptable but possibly favorable given the otherwise lack of overwhelming leverage to secure a better outcome.”

Europe’s Idea of the Future

Europe’s assessment is beginning to diverge from Washington’s. The consequences of a deeply unstable Syria could be more meaningful for Europe; already Europe has faced the 2015 refugee crisis and the wave of Daesh attacks since. The early signs of a second mass refugee flow may be emerging from Lebanon, where small boats have begun traversing the Mediterranean toward Cyprus. Though key European states’ publicly stated positions continue to align with Washington in refusing to consider any re-engagement with the Syrian regime or foreign investment or reconstruction assistance, behind the scenes those states appear to be less resolute.

More than six European governments have sent senior Syria-focused officials to Washington in recent weeks, partly to encourage the U.S. government to embrace a more “nuanced” approach to Syria’s future. This means some level of re-engagement in regime areas may eventually be deemed necessary – potentially beginning with civil society and the self-identified “independent” business community. The logic would follow that Europe’s best interests are in encouraging a semblance of stability in Syria and providing an environment in which existing refugee populations may have more interest in returning and prospective refugees are discouraged from leaving.

This hypothetical would be shaped into reality by a combination of naiveté and a cold determination to protect immediate interests over future considerations. The Assad regime is a predatory actor of supreme capability. There is no “independent” business community in regime areas of Syria. Even the United Nations, the supposed paragon of international human rights, depends heavily on bodies run by the Assad family to distribute its funds and assistance in Syria. European engagement, even if initially limited, would further embolden the Assad regime and rehabilitate it in international eyes. Similar thinking in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia is already setting a precedent in this respect, possibly one that has stimulated Europe’s rethink.

Syria fatigue is not going away. But it must not be allowed to encourage a capitulation of reason in Europe – reason developed over years of brutal experience in dealing with Assad and his regime. There are admittedly no good policy options when it comes to Syria, but paving a path toward the rehabilitation of the Assad regime will guarantee long-term instability and the very outcomes Europe is so determined to avoid. Instead, the United States and Europe should come together and hammer out a shared approach. After all, two divergent approaches will lead to outcomes that are in neither party’s interests. At least two European states are actively seeking to arrange such a gathering, but there is no indication that they have finalized any plan to meet.

Charles Lister is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Extremism and Counterterrorism Program at the Middle East Institute (MEI). Lister’s work focuses primarily on the conflict in Syria, including as a member of the MEI-convened Syria Study Group; and on issues of terrorism and insurgency across the Levant. He is the author of the critically acclaimed book, “The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency” (Oxford University Press, 2016). The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.