The situation in Syria continues to worsen – an observation made innumerable times over the last nine years of brutal conflict. But the further hollowing out of Syrian society, the ongoing suffering of its people – especially given the possible spread of covid-19 – and its impact on European interests should still spark intense internal reflection in Europe. In addition to the moral imperative of helping the Syrian people, Europe’s chief interest in Syria is to re-establish stability, and thereby prevent refugee outflows to its own shores and terrorism in its own cities.

Covid-19 cannot make disappear old conflicts

Stability in Syria could also enable refugees to return from Europe and elsewhere in the Middle East. Ultimately, this depends on addressing the root causes of a conflict in which Assad is the chief perpetrator, having led a military campaign that has left Syria devastated and up to 500,000 people dead. In this new ECFR policy brief, Julien Barnes-Dacey argues the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign Washington is prosecuting against the Assad regime is not only doomed to failure, it will also harm the very people who need help the most – ordinary Syrians trying to stay alive and build a modicum of independence within Syria but separate from the regime. Instead, Europe must act now to implement a ‘society max’ approach.

This new strategy recognises that Assad is the prime culprit for Syria’s problems, and seeks instead to extend help directly to Syrians on the ground. Importantly, it sets out how European governments can achieve this at an acceptable political cost, including by shoring up much-needed European unity on Syria. The main takeaways of the paper are: After nine years of conflict, the US is mounting a ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Syria, aiming at collapsing the regime. With Assad having effectively won the war, he is unlikely to succumb to US economic pressure.

The war machine named Assad

Assad bears responsibility for the country’s freefall but this strategy will further accelerate societal collapse, especially as coronavirus looms, and will not deliver a transition. European governments should pivot to a longer-term strategy focused on protecting those societal forces that are still standing and that can help salvage a better future aligned with European interests. The unpredictability of the Trump administration means persuading the US down this track is not impossible – Europeans should seek to influence Washington to widen space for societal support. A ‘society max’ approach in Syria will be made up of several strands. To begin implementing it, European governments should now: Increase ‘humanitarian plus’ assistance. This relates to support that goes beyond pure humanitarian aid, moving towards early recovery and development aid and the provision of essential services.

Covid-19 will increase the urgency of this track. Channel support directly to in-country Syrians. Europeans should cautiously provide enhanced assistance to Syrians on the ground – whether through direct financial support or digital engagement aimed at transmitting expertise and capacity support – to help cement societal resilience. Widen and ensure efficient implementation of EU sanctions exemptions. There should be a renewed focus – led by the EU on behalf of member states – on ensuring that EU sanctions are correctly implemented, and that humanitarian exemptions are accessible. Better deploy European access in Syria. The European insistence that in-country engagement legitimises Assad needs to be recalibrated. Full-scale political re-engagement with Assad should certainly