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Comment & analysis

Von der Leyen's Greek 'shield' will not work

16 March 2020 Louisa Waugh and Bilal Sukkar Von der Leyen's Greek 'shield' will not work

A version of this comment piece was originally published in the EU Observer. 

Louisa Waugh and Bilal Sukkar explored why the EU should demonstrate leadership, as opposed to using coercive tactics, in addressing the conflict in Syria.

If the ceasefire signed last week between Turkey and Russia continues to hold, it is a real chance to stop the bloodshed in Idlib that has already forced thousands of Syrians to flee their homes. It could also be an opportunity for the EU to step up its involvement in reaching a robust political solution to the Syrian conflict.

But this will not change the situation for the at least 35,000 people currently stranded in a no-mans-land between the Turkish, Greek and Bulgarian borders.

Having strongly encouraged these exhausted refugees to move towards the borders, Turkish troops are now refusing to allow them to turn back.

Meanwhile, the EU's current response is to work with Greece to strengthen the border into south east Europe that some refugees are now trying to cross.

This short-term measure is not dealing with Turkey's intention to pressure the EU into supporting its wider agenda in Syria.

Nor does it address the EU's outsourcing of migration controls through countries such as Turkey, and Libya, that is replacing humanitarian protection with military border controls.

This is now leading to refugees being shot at and attacked by Greek border guards.

The dire situation on Europe's southern borders needs to be understood within the wider context of the devastating conflict in Syria.

All tactics, no strategy

This link presents the EU with an opportunity to demonstrate leadership in addressing the larger regional conflict, as opposed to using emergency tactics, like deploying more Frontex guards to fortify the Turkish-Greek Mediterranean crossings.

Syria's conflict has persisted for almost nine years. The EU's secondary role in Syria, particularly since Europe's 'migration crisis' in 2015, has given more influential powers Russia, Iran and Turkey free rein to shape the conflict's outcome.

In the process, the Syrian regime and its allies have coercively subdued and forcibly displaced previously rebellious communities. Turkey also led incursions into northern Syria to push back their Kurdish opponents, forcing many to flee their villages.

Such 'securitised' approaches have established new realities across the country vulnerable to further outbreaks of violence and mass displacement.

The agreement reached last Thursday (5 March) is just another example. While significant in reaching a ceasefire, it omitted any mention of the fate of around 900,000 people displaced from areas taken by the Syrian regime since December.

If the EU does not play a more active role in stopping the pursuit of a military end to this conflict in favour of a political solution, refugees will continue to seek safety and sanctuary in Europe.

Certain EU states, especially France and Germany, have worked to address the Syrian conflict with Russia and Turkey in a previous summit.

The EU has also imposed sanctions, and conditioned reconstruction funds on the Syrian regime's genuine cooperation with a political process.

EU aid supplies span regime and opposition-controlled areas, as well as the Kurdish-led Self-Administration in Syria.

On Friday (6 March), the EU announced that it will invite Russia and Turkey to this year's donor conference, to be held in Brussels in June.

But as both seem to be hitting the limits of their understandings to ending the conflict in Syria, the EU has an opportunity to play a larger role in influencing the path towards reaching a lasting resolution to the conflict. This will have to include civilian protection, avenues for justice, and a safe environment for the dignified return of refugees to their homes.

Syria's enduring conflict is the main reason thousands of refugees are abandoned in no-man's land in appalling conditions.

The Greek government's reactions, including temporarily suspending asylum applications, is symptomatic of how overwhelmed the country is.

On the islands of Samos and Lesbos, police in balaclavas now patrol the streets.

In some Greek communities, where locals generously supported those arriving by boat back in 2015, a minority have now turned on new arrivals, and on aid workers trying to support them.

This starkly highlights EU states' refusal to share the responsibility for absorbing a proportionate number of asylum seekers in mainland Europe, despite being among the richest nations in the world.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen's description of Greece as Europe's "shield" demonstrates the lack of political will from member states to respect their international commitments.

Globally, almost nine-out-of-ten refugees are hosted in low- and middle-income countries.

The narrow 'security first' approach to migration by the EU and member state governments is failing to respond to the complex drivers of conflict and forced displacement from Syria.

Europe must adhere to its founding values and humanitarian principles, and invest more political and economic weight behind a just solution to Syria's war.

Photo: © Louisa Waugh 2019