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Europe should back away from US strategy in the Levant

On June 17, a new round of far reaching U.S. economic sanctions imposed on Syria — known as the “Caesar Act” — will take effect. The scope and scale of the sanctions will also directly affect Lebanon because it has preserved close economic relations with Syria even during the decade-long civil war. The introduction of this new sanctions package goes hand in hand with increased U.S. pressure on the European Union to designate Hezbollah — a Lebanese Shiite political and militant organization — a terrorist organization.

As a senior U.S. official involved in the formulation of the Syrian policy candidly admitted in a recent call with an audience of the EU policymakers and think-tank officials that the underlying strategy behind these measures is to deny the Assad regime the fruits of its military victory by leveraging American financial clout, and to impose the costs of Syria’s reconstruction squarely on Assad’s external backers – Russia and Iran.

The assumption is that both powers, facing significant economic challenges themselves, won’t be able to foot the bill, and that the Syrian people will inevitably revolt against the regime.

Meanwhile, the U.S. will contain the Assad regime and keep applying the “maximum pressure” until it implodes. In essence, this is no different from the strategy Washington is pursuing against Iran, and in fact, can be seen as an extension of it given the Trump administration’s fixation on Iran. And just like against Iran, the U.S. is trying to rally its European allies as junior partners in executing it.

This strategy, however, is likely to achieve the exact opposite of its declared goals in both Syria and Lebanon.

As a top European analyst on Syria said, the U.S. would not hesitate to burn Syria down if it could weaken Russia and Iran in the process. Yet the crippling economic sanctions would inevitably hurt the civilian population more than the regime. It will make the people of Syria more, not less, dependent on Assad, Russia, and Iran for the provision of increasingly scarce public goods. In the process, it will also tarnish America’s image just as it did in Iran. Citizens there are already well aware of their regime’s incompetence, corruption, and brutality, and they blame U.S. sanctions for callously compounding their woes.

The net result is further shrinking of whatever is left of American soft power in the region. Granted, there will be more economic-driven protests in Syria, like the recent ones that led to the sacking of the Prime Minister Imad Khamis. However, the regime’s repressive apparatus, having withstood the civil war, looks prepared to deal with such contingencies. And neither are the regime’s backers in Moscow and Tehran showing a slightest inclination to abandon it.

The maximum pressure strategy is unlikely to fare any better in Lebanon. Efforts to pressure Iran through isolating Hezbollah and undermining the legitimate government, which depends on Hezbollah’s support, will not bring a government better attuned to Washington’s priorities. It will only increase the power of the best-organized, strategic, and ruthless forces in the Lebanese political and social scene, which just to happens to be Hezbollah itself.

The result will further erode U.S. influence and create diplomatic openings for Russia and China in the Levant. Not only that, but the perception of growing American irrelevance in the region will also embolden its remaining allies in the Middle East to pursue their own policies even when at odds with Washington’s preferences. Indeed, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have acquiesced to to Assad’s preeminence, and are working towards leveraging the newly-re-established ties with Damascus against their perceived common enemy — Turkey.

The EU has, largely, hitched its wagon to the U.S. on Syria. Its most influential member states, like Germany and especially France, closely coordinating with a post-Brexit Britain, are still committed to the idea of a political transition (regime change by another name) in Syria before any re-engagement could take place.

Yet some other member states, particularly from the Eastern Europe, are inching closer to an unconditional re-recognition of the Assad regime. In fact, some, like Czechs, never closed their embassy in Damascus to begin with. And then still others, like Spain and Italy, are charting a middle course between the two extremes. Lately, a string of publications by leading European think tanks also advocated for a more nuanced EU approach to Syria.

That approach would not undermine the continued validity of, for example, United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 calling for a “political solution” to the Syrian conflict. Nor would it bestow an unconditional recognition on the Assad regime, which is primarily responsible for the Syrian carnage. A new European strategy towards Syria should focus on fostering the resilience of Syrian (and Lebanese) society. The lessons of crippling sanctions against Iraq between the two Gulf wars show that a degraded society, once liberated from a brutal dictator, does not usher into a liberal democracy, but into violent chaos and disintegration, where the most sectarian and vicious elements usually have an upper hand.

The U.S. can largely shield itself from the consequences of such an outcome. Even serial blunders in the Middle East do not pose it an existential security threat. However, EU can afford no such luxury. The repercussions from a continuing chaos in the region could directly threaten a liberal order within the EU itself, through recurring terrorist attacks, uncontrolled migration flows, and subsequent rise of extremist right-wing forces. To avoid such an outcome, the EU should assert its strategic autonomy in the Levant, and decouple itself from an American strategy that is counter-productive to its long-term interests.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

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