Can Europeans and Arabs find common ground to foster a meaningful dialogue in Syria?https://en.majalla.com/node/292711/politics/can-europeans-and-arabs-find-common-ground-foster-meaningful-dialogue-syria
Whereas Europeans were rather unamazed by the recent reintegration of Syria into the League of Arab States, others felt put on the spot. The new approach of the Arab world on Syria, however, may encourage the Europeans to adopt a more energetic policy in addressing the Syrian crisis.
Despite the disparities between European and Arab approaches, both sides can find common ground in prioritising the aspirations of Syrian civil society.
There is even a common reference that Europeans and Arabs alike can take as an, albeit modest, point of departure. It consists of a document of principles called ‘The Code of Conduct for Syrian Coexistence’ which was drafted, signed and widely discussed by Syrian civil society leaders in both Syria and the Syrian diaspora across the political divide.
After 12 years of relative isolation, Syria has rejoined the Arab League, marked by President Bashar al-Assad's participation in the 32nd Arab Summit held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on 19 May.
Led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, member states have chosen to pursue the path of ‘Realpolitik’ in dealing with the Syrian crisis and reintegrate Syria into the Arab fold.
However controversial it may be, this shift in strategy demonstrates that Arab countries can now boast a distinct Syrian policy, unlike most Western nations.
Call for bolder European policy
In a recent article, Michel Duclos, the former French ambassador to Syria, meticulously analysed the motives and challenges behind this new Arab approach. Duclos spoke of an Arab resurgence to fill the void left by years of Western countries' lack of interest in the Syrian issue" and called for a bolder European policy.
Michel Duclos, the former French ambassador to Syria, meticulously analysed the motives and challenges behind this new Arab approach. Duclos spoke of an Arab resurgence to fill the void left by years of Western countries' lack of interest in the Syrian issue" and called for a bolder European policy.
Nevertheless, the member states of the European Union (EU) have diverse opinions on what a unified European stance on Syria could be.
While some advocate a careful outreach to Damascus, others uphold the position of 'Three No's': they reject to normalise relations with the Syrian government, to lift sanctions, or provide European funding for Syria's reconstruction – so long as Al-Assad remains in power and, in their view, fails to demonstrate a genuine willingness to political concessions, such as releasing a significant number of detainees from Syrian prisons or engaging in political compromise with his opponents.
Some European Union countries have indeed formalised their relations with Syria or signed 'memorandums of understanding', highlighting the discrepancies within Europe. This may create the impression that, while there is consensus among Arab nations on their Syria policy, Europeans remain divided.
However, it is important to note that, similar to Europe, the members of the Arab League are not unanimous about their policy.
The majority of Arab countries have simply chosen to restore relations with Damascus, but prefer to remain vague about the nature of these relations, which vary from country to country. As Duclos mentioned in his article, this Arab change of approach may be more symbolic than substantive.
Unanswered questions and unresolved concerns
Numerous unanswered questions persist, and Arab League member states prefer to leave them unanswered so far.
Thus, if we consider the reintegration of Syria into the Arab League as a symbolic change, we can argue that the logical European approach is not significantly different from that of the Arab world. It focuses on the formal side and leaves the interpretation to the respective member state.
Why should European policy be more assertive?
We can engage in a lengthy discussion about when Europe lost most of its influence in its Southern Neighbourhood and whether this situation can be reversed. One can also ask if realism in this context means that Europe needs to drop its hopes to positively influence the policies of Arab nations. Or if Europe must content itself with the role of an observer.
Geopolitics necessitate strategic attention
Nevertheless, such a passive position may be more challenging and more costly than an active one, as far as Syria and the Arab world are concerned. Strategically, the Arab world is more important for European interests than ever.
Europeans may still perceive it as far away region plagued by recurring crises, but this perception no longer aligns with geopolitical reality.
The Russian aggression against Ukraine demonstrates clearly that we are doomed to cooperate. We do not choose our neighbours, we simply need to deal with them meaningfully.
Migration, internal and external security, climate change, and energy supplies — all these vital and strategic issues pertain to Europe's relations with the Arab world.
Therefore, the Middle East necessitates sustainable strategic attention from Europeans, and Syria, given its relevance to most of the aforementioned issues, remains a decisive factor.
Migration, internal and external security, climate change, and energy supplies — all these vital and strategic issues pertain to Europe's relations with the Arab world. Therefore, the Middle East requires strategic attention from Europeans.
Europeans must establish their dialogue with Arab countries regarding Syria on the basis of common principles and agreements.
Despite their differences, both Europeans and their Arab partners have already reaffirmed their commitment to Security Council Resolution 2254, which emphasises the need for a political solution in Syria.
Building upon this, they can further rely on principles formulated by Syrian society, specifically the Code of Conduct for Syrian Coexistence, which has gained support from a significant number of representatives from various Syrian networks and communities, in both Syria and the Syrian Diaspora, including Alawites and Sunnis.
Starting point for reconciliation
The Code of Conduct for Syrian Coexistence is a supra-constitutional document that was signed in Berlin in the fall of 2017 and made public in January 2018. It consists of 11 simple and unambiguous principles.
One of its prominent principles, often cited by the international press, is "No victor, no vanquished" in the Syrian crisis. This signifies that Syrian society as a whole has lost from this devastating war, and no group has the right, explicitly or implicitly, to claim victory over the other or behave in a triumphant fashion.
Other principles of the charter include individual accountability for committed crimes, the right of refugees and internally displaced persons to return, the restoration of properties and restitution, the disclosure of the fate of prisoners, missing persons, and victims, as well as the recognition of religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity within Syrian society.
They fear violence
They fear persecution
They have no future
What makes this charter unique is the circumstances of its coming into being and the identity of its initial signatories. Over months, community leaders, tribal chiefs, former officials, and leading intellectuals from various segments of the Syrian population discretely convened abroad to negotiate the principles of a new social contract.
Among the signatories were individuals from families whose names figure among the leaders of the National Bloc, the first independence movement against the French Mandate. However, the signatories of the Code of Conduct do not claim any mandate or democratic legitimacy; It was rather the dire situation in Syria, a case of emergency, that empowered them to act on behalf of their fellow compatriots.
Informed and bound by the principles of the document, The Council of the Syrian Charter has emerged as a movement from this endeavour and now serves as a platform to represent diverse voices of Syrian society.
Its members also maintain strong relationships with decision-makers in Gulf countries, the Levant, and Europe. Within its sessions, the council engages in calm, open, and politically unrestricted discussions about the future of the country and the role that Syrian society can play in shaping it.
Syrian role critical
Despite the political differences among members of the Council of the Syrian Charter, which include opposition members, pragmatists, and representatives of the popular base of the Syrian state, they all agree on a single fact: the deep crisis in Syria cannot be solely resolved through international politics.
They believe that Syrian society, which played its role in tearing the country apart, should also play a major role in the settlement process.
The members of the Council of the Syrian Charter believe that the society, which played a significant role in tearing the country apart, should also play a major role in the settlement process.
In its statements, the Council of the Syrian Charter emphasises its sole motivation to serve the interests of society, both at the human or humanitarian level and beyond. It does not seek to dictate the means by which foreign and regional powers may achieve this goal.
Instead, it reminds political actors of their promises and commitments. Some powers may believe that establishing diplomatic relations with Syria alone can alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people, while others may view the reintegration of Syria as a strategic mistake or even a dangerous precedent. And while all members of the Council hold personal opinions on this issue, the Council itself does not proclaim a doctrinal position.
An ethical foundation for Euro-Arab cooperation
In our view, the Code of Conduct for Syrian Coexistence provides a common and ethical foundation for Euro-Arab cooperation while remaining a flexible tool.
European and Arab powers can draw inspiration from it or even officially recognise it as a document of supra-constitutional nature that complements the efforts of the United Nations within the framework of the Constitutional Committee (and in no way competes with the latter).
Regardless of their official stance on formal relations with Damascus, European and Arab powers can use this Code of Conduct as a reference and insist that Syrian leaders fulfil their duty and measure their political action by the benefit to the Syrian people.
In recent years, the Council of the Syrian Charter has received a warm reception from European and Arab countries. This movement represents an important part of Syrian society, with sufficient independence for its ideas to serve as a reliable starting point for the settlement of the Syrian crisis.
Syrian society will remain in Syria even when today's occupying forces and politicians are history. The famous Palmyra Tetrapylon which figures in the Council's coat of arms, epitomises the enduring presence of a diverse Syrian society throughout history, serving as a landmark and guiding light for those who cross the Syrian desert.
It is time to grant Syrian society a significant role in international deliberations and an appropriate place that reflects its real importance, moving beyond a mere consultative or symbolic role as it was in the past. The Council of the Syrian Charter has made it clear that Syrian society has something valuable to offer to the international community in return.
-Daniel Gerlach is a German Middle East expert, editor-in-chief of Zenith Magazine, and director general of the Candid Foundation in Berlin. He assists various civil dialogue initiatives in the Middle East, including the Council of the Syrian Charter and the Iraqi National Dialogue Initiative.