No normalisation without a political settlement is the EU's stance against the Syrian regime, but why are some of its member states still reopening their embassies?
The European Union hasn't altered its position on Syria as it rules out any form of normalisation with its regime, saying that diplomatic relations can resume only after substantial changes.
But recent reports about some of the EU member states re-opening their embassies in Damascus have left many wondering: Isn’t it a conflicting move?
“If an EU Member State reopens its embassy in Damascus, it does not mean the normalization of relations with the regime — the Ambassadors will not submit their credentials to 'President' Assad and are acting in Syria only in the diplomatic capacity of charge d’affaires,” EU Commission’s lead spokesperson Peter Stano told TRT World in an email interview.
According to the EU spokesperson, the reopening of embassies in Damascus by its member states is neither new, nor does it change the EU's policy towards Syria.
A decade-old war has shattered the Syrian regime’s diplomatic standing in the world, with tens of embassies remaining shut in the country.
Except for a handful of nations that stayed with the Syrian regime through thick and thin, several governments severed diplomatic ties with it after the regime soldiers quelled the 2011 peaceful protests with a bloody crackdown, which became the main precursor of the Syrian war.
In its most recent statement, the EU clearly stated that normalisation is out of the question unless the Syrian regime ends the repression, releases detainees, and engages with all the parties in accordance with the UN's resolutions.
Greece and Greek administered-Cyprus reportedly sent a diplomatic representation to Damascus over six months ago and are now getting ready to open an embassy publicly, while Hungary's Foreign Ministry told TRT World that its diplomatic mission is already back in Syria on “chargé d’affaires level for ‘humanitarian work and the aid projects..”
Greece and Greek Cypriot Administration didn't respond to TRT World's request for clarification on their diplomatic mission’s current state and comments.
But for the EU, as per its spokesperson Stano, any "diplomatic presence" of the member-states in Damascus "does not mean a change of the established EU policy of 'no reconstruction without transformation'”.
Stano says, within the EU framework, there are still areas that do not fall under EU obligations and treaties, and one of them has the sovereign right of countries to decide when and where and in what form they can open their diplomatic representations abroad.
The European Council, on the other hand, keeps imposing sanctions on Syria with the aim of preventing the fuelling of the regime's war economy and repressing dissenting voices.
But some are still worried that embassy openings could eventually benefit Bashar al Assad.
Refugees can feel its impact on the ground
Qutaiba Idlbi, the US representative of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, told TRT World that although he appreciates the EU's official line on the Syrian regime, it should still maintain a minimum bar of accountability regarding such decisions by its member states.
“Such decisions will affect the lives of refugees, and will give a boost to the Assad regime - even if the EU continues to hold its stance,” said Idlbi, who is also a fellow at the Middle East Institute.
“Our worries are that this move will encourage similar EU countries to take this step when the Assad regime made zero steps towards achieving a political transition in Syria,” he said.
Syria's regime leader Bashar al-Assad has been increasingly calling for the return of around 6 million refugees scattered around the world in a move widely seen as an attempt to prove legitimacy and find funding for reconstruction.
Amid calls of political settlement by the EU and the US, the majority of the world doesn’t recognise the regime as a legitimate actor. After several reports of disappearances, arrests and forced conscriptions of Syrians who returned to their homeland, refugees who are run the risk of deportation fear the same consequences.
But, both EU members, first Germany and then Denmark, took steps to send a number of refugees back to Damascus, despite the world insisting that it would be dangerous for them.
While Germany started sending back refugees with criminal records, Denmark deported refugees back to their original destination of Damascus, saying the capital was no longer dangerous for anyone.
Denmark’s embassy staff, once based in Damascus before the war, works out of Beirut, Lebanon, citing the security situation in Damascus.
A symbolic populist move
Suhail al Ghazi, a Syrian researcher at the Levant desk in ORSAM said he doesn’t see the reported plans of embassy reopenings resulting in a normalisation due to remaining pressing EU policies. But regardless, he says, the Greek administration’s reported move is a “populist” one.
In the last couple of years, Europe has been taken by a storm of right-wing parties’ influence that resulted in an increasing anti-refugee sentiment in politics. Located on one of the most popular migrant routes, Greece is affected by the same polarising wave, which is partly fuelled by anti-immigrant views. Greek-administrated Cyprus’s south has also been facing a flow of refugees.
According to the Dublin regulation, an EU law, refugees are only allowed to seek asylum in the first country they enter once in Europe. In the case of Syrian refugees, it often happens to be Greece.
If they manage to enter, many of them either get stuck in the country or attempt to cross to another European country via smugglers.
“Not only the refugees who are stuck in Greece but also the ones who were registered in Greece and now they live in Germany or France, for example, are at risk,” Ghazi explains.
“If they went on with normalisation, (Greece and Greek Cypriot Administration) could become a place where other EU countries send refugees back, so they can be deported to Syria -- without causing any headache,” he says.
In March last year, Turkey opened its borders, allowing thousands of Europe-bound refugees to enter Greece - a move that further strained relations between Ankara and Athens. Ghazi says, for Greece and Greek Cypriot Administration, involving the Syrian regime is a move intended to strengthen their position against a common adversary, Turkey.
Among 3.5 million Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey, many of them want to cross into Europe. However, Greece has been determined to keep its vow not to allow that to happen.
“A real change that can turn EU’s Syria policy around is a political transition or a deal that could end the hostilities,” Ghazi says.
Until then, the “Syrian regime just wants to get anything any European country can provide, even opening a small diplomatic mission.”