The war in Ukraine and the blown agreement for early recovery in Syria. A missed opportunity

The agreement has been blown

This is the story of a missed opportunity. Since the end of February 2022, the war inUkraine and the consequent sharp rift between Russia and the Western community hasabruptly interrupted high-level diplomatic efforts aimed at creating the preconditions fora gradual solution to the 11-years long armed conflict in Syria.The Mediterranean country is devastated by a war that has killed at least half a millionpeople and pushed more than half of the twenty million Syrians to flee their homes, somemillions in other Syrian regions, millions more abroad, scattered in the Middle East andbeyond. According to the UN, more than 90% of Syrians live in a state of poverty.At the beginning of 2022 the two global powers involved in the conflict, the UnitedStates and Russia, were painstakingly reaching a political compromise to unblock theinternational impasse on the question of a gradual return of refugees towards areas undergovernmental control. According to the sources, this return should have been entirelyvoluntary, the refugees’ civil and political rights should have been protected during andafter their return, as well as their socio-economic prospects should have been guaranteedin the short, mid and long term.In view of a possible future return of Syrian refugees in governmental areas, in January2022 advanced contacts were underway between the United States and Russia to reacha framework agreement allowing the beginning of early recovery-labeled humanitarianprojects aimed at restoring essential services and basic structures in such areas.

A fragmented territory

The central government of Damascus is represented by President Bashar al-Asad, inpower since 2000 and last year re-elected for his fourth term until 2028. Asad’s powerhas been decisively supported for decades by both Russia and Iran.This alliance controls large portions of the national territory: the Damascus-Aleppourban backbone, passing through the main capitals of Daraa, Homs, Hama; the Mediter-ranean coastal region, where Russia has strengthened its historical presence in the East-ern Mediterranean; part of the steppe area between the Euphrates and the Palmyra oasis.Eastern Syria is controlled by a coalition of Kurdish and Arab forces led by the KurdishWorkers’ Party (PKK), hostile to Turkey and supported by the United States as part of theglobal anti-Isis coalition.The jihadist insurrection, formally declared defeated in March 2019, continues to oper-ate and proselytize, carrying out hit-and-run attacks increasingly frequent along the twobanks of the Euphrates. In the north-west around Aleppo and in a part of the north-east,Turkey and local forces have controlled much of the territory for years.

The deadlock and the official position of the EU

Seen from this rugged and fragmented terrain, the conflict in Syria has appeared foryears and still today without any prospects for a solution. Since 2012, the UN has helda table of mediation between the Damascus government and exiled oppositions. Despitethe efforts of a series of high-level UN officials, the UN envoys have few tools to lever-age the parties involved in the conflict. Since 2018, the position of UN special envoy forSyria has been held by the experienced Norwegian diplomat Geir Pedersen, who tries tokeep alive the only negotiating forum formally still active: the inter-Syrian Constitution-al Committee.This inter-Syrian body, composed of 150 members (50 pro-government, 50 pro-exiledoppositions, 50 representatives of the ‘civil society’) was founded back in 2019 afterRussia took the helm of the international diplomatic initiative on Syria with the consen-sus of the United States.It should be noted that 2015 UN Security Council resolution n. 2254, which providedfor the gradual achievement of a political solution to the armed conflict, still remainsthe main regulatory and diplomatic reference for most of the international and regionalactors involved in the Syrian crisis.According to UN resolution n.2254, the constitutional committee should have beenformed at the end (and not at the beginning) of the initial post-armed conflict period char-acterized by a nationwide armed truce. Nowadays, even after eight subsequent Constitu-tional Committees meetings in Geneva, the war still rages over large Syrian territories.After almost three years of unsuccessful UN mediated negotiations, it became clearthat the Moscow-led initiative, embodied by the Constitutional Committee, aims to gaintime without helping to create, either from above or from below, the conditions for agradual and political solution to the conflict.This impasse favors not only Russia but all the other forces that, inside and outsideSyria, have been betting for years on territorial division and on the exploitation, in ashort-term perspective, of the resources of the territory in the center of the Middle East.The European Union, which instead seems interested in breaking this deadlock, re-mains anchored to its political line, crystallized on the positions of the first years of theSyrian crisis: no intervention for the reconstruction of Syria before the start of a politicaltransition in the country. As if to say, Brussels does not intend to provide political legiti-macy to the Asad government by investing in the reconstruction of the local and strategicinfrastructures of the Mediterranean country.

The missed opportunity

In light of this stalemate, diplomats and officials of European development countries’cooperation agencies have pushed for a medium-term compromise between the partiesinvolved to start early recovery projects in the areas under government control. Theagreement provided that the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), which has always kept itschannels open with Damascus, would offer formal and logistical coverage to the actionsupported by Russia, the United States and by the European Union.The launch of these projects would have sent signals of openness to Damascus and itsRussian partner. In exchange, Moscow would have ensured periodic approval of the UNresolution to keep open the cross-border channel of humanitarian aid from Turkey to ar-eas of the north-west, out of government control and under Turkish influence.This would have been a tactical, not necessarily strategic, exchange between Washing-ton and Moscow. In fact, the negotiations did not concern the political and institutionalfuture of Syria, nor were they explicitly aimed at ending the war and starting peace.The steps forward made between 2021 and the beginning of 2022 were apparently min-imal, yet they could have constituted the first slab of a floor to be built to generate trustbetween the parties, inside and outside Syria.The Russian military invasion of Ukraine and the stance taken by the United States andits international allies have had inevitable repercussions, including on the parable of thefailure to agree on early recovery in Syria. The Syrian events that followed the Russianinvasion of Ukraine adamantly showed the fragility of the entente between Moscow andWashington.Since March, Moscow has left more room for Iran to expand into central Syria and thesouth-western regions, troubling US interests. Starting from April, Washington strength-ened its positions in the Northeast, and so did Russia. Since April, Turkey has obtainedmore room for maneuver to intensify attacks against the PKK in Syria and neighboringIraq. In May, the United States decided to lift some trade sanctions on Syrian partners inthe north-east and north-west, effectively deepening the commercial, social and politicalfragmentation between Syrian regions divided by military trenches. Again, in May Rus-sia has announced that it does not intend to vote in favor, in the Security Council, for theresolution that extends the green light for cross-border humanitarian aid from Turkey tothe Idlib region.In the face of these politico-military developments, at the April Brussels internationalconference on Syria and the region, 75% of the promised funds came from the EuropeanUnion and from European donors. This constitutes an expression of Euro-Mediterraneaninterests once again defeated by a trajectory on a global scale based on short term mili-tary and political confrontation.