European Union External Action

EU-SYRIA: SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT

29/06/2021 - 10:08
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In an attempt to influence the public opinion and mobilise voters during the Syrian elections last month, representatives of the Syrian regime and their allies are spreading misleading and false information about the European Union (EU) and “the West”. Their main goal is to conceal the impact of their own actions and hold the outside world responsible for the suffering of the Syrian population and the grave mismanagement of the country.

In an attempt to influence the public opinion and mobilise voters during the Syrian elections last month, representatives of the Syrian regime and their allies are spreading misleading and false information about the European Union (EU) and “the West”. Their main goal is to conceal the impact of their own actions and hold the outside world responsible for the suffering of the Syrian population and the grave mismanagement of the country.

Syrian regime officials and their allies claim that EU sanctions are a “collective punishment of the Syrian population” and that the West wants to “prevent refugees from returning to Syria”. They have also claimed that the West is supporting terrorist organisations in Syria and manipulating international bodies such as the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to accuse the regime of using chemical weapons. Right after the “presidential elections”, regime-affiliated outlets and figures also launched a fallacious media campaign claiming that the European Union is preparing the grounds to normalise relations with the Syrian regime.

Ten years into the Syrian conflict, the Syrian regime is still trying to twist the facts. Social media platforms and mobile messaging applications have also made it easier for disinformation to spread. If you spot any of the below myths in your feeds, call them out. It is time to set the record straight.

Myth: Syria is safe for refugees to return.

Fact: Very few Syrians dare return to their country. Among those who do, there have been many instances of arrests, disappearance, mistreatment by the security forces and sometimes forced conscription.

Over 5.5 million Syrians had to seek refuge in other countries to escape the horrors of the war.

The right to safe, voluntary and dignified return is an individual right of refugees and internally displaced persons. However, human rights organisations have documented that Syrian security forces continue to arbitrarily detain, ‘disappear’ and mistreat people across the country, including returnees and individuals in retaken areas.

Syria remains an unsafe and discriminatory country for most of its citizens. The laws and political reforms needed to ensure the right of its citizens to live in safety are not there.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) regularly reviews the conditions that would be needed for organised returns to be safe. Access to the entire territory is needed for UNHCR and other mandated humanitarian organisations to monitor the situation.

Myth: The EU and the West are waging an economic war against Syrians.

Fact:  Bashar al-Assad said it himself in November 2020: “The current crisis is not linked to the ‘siege’ and it started years after the ‘siege’”.

Syria is in a desperate economic situation, caused among other things by decades of poor economic management, the war economy built by the regime and its protégés, the Lebanese banking crisis, and widespread corruption.

In a televised visit to a manufacturers’ exhibition in Damascus, in November 2020, Bashar al-Assad provided his own analysis by plainly blaming the Lebanese banking crisis for Syria’s economic crisis and said: “This current crisis is not caused by the ‘siege’; “This siege has lasted for years—and that doesn’t mean that the siege is fine. The siege is harmful and has a direct impact on all aspects of life. However, for the current crisis, which began several months ago, the core reason for it is the Lebanese banking crisis. This crisis started before the Caesar Act, and years after the start of the siege. Okay, so what coincided with it? The money that vanished in Lebanon. And we paid the price”, he continued.

EU sanctions against the Syrian regime have been in place and mostly unchanged since 2011, as a reaction to the brutal repression of the civilian population. They have been recently renewed until 1 June 2022. The list now includes 283 persons and 70 entities, targeted by both an asset freeze and a travel ban, as well as some sectoral sanctions targeting the sources of income of the war economy.

EU restrictive measures are designed to avoid impeding the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Exports of food, medicines or medical equipment such as respirators and ventilators are not subject to EU sanctions.

There is no humanitarian and trade embargo on Syria. EU goods have been flowing freely into the country until 2019. Trade then went down because of the collapse of Lebanon’s banking sector, that was Syria’s main trade and financial gateway to the world but EU consumer goods, medicines etc. are not subject to sanctions and continue to enter the country.

Far from looking away from the dire humanitarian situation that most Syrians are facing, the EU and its Member States have been by far the largest provider of support to Syrians throughout the past ten years. We have collectively mobilised close to €25 billion of humanitarian, stabilisation and resilience assistance.

Sanctions are still in place for a reason. Despite attempts by the Syrian regime at presenting the country as peaceful and under control, the repression and the military operations continue. Accountability is missing at all levels and money is still being diverted from meeting the needs of Syrians to fuelling corruption and clientelism and financing the war.

Myth: The EU and its Member States are taking steps to normalise relations with the Syrian regime.

Fact: Normalisation is out of the question unless the Syrian regime engages in a political transition in accordance with UN resolutions. This includes ending the repression and freeing the tens of thousands of political detainees in its prisons.

Right after the Syrian elections ended, regime-controlled media outlets and officials launched a media campaign claiming that the European Union will be normalising relations with Damascus since some EU member states had re-opened their embassies. They ended up denying it themselves: the pro-regime Syrian radio station Sham FM tweeted a “clarification” by a Syrian diplomatic source saying: “There are no signs of raising the level of diplomatic representation with these countries.”

There have been no changes to EU Member States’ representation in Damascus in the wake of last May’s election. The reopening of embassies in Damascus by a few Member States is not new. While each EU Member State has the sovereign right to decide about its diplomatic representation abroad, the presence of EU or Member States diplomats in Damascus does not mean the normalisation of relations with the regime.  Chargés d’affaires to Syria operate in a reduced capacity, mostly to carry out humanitarian work, aid projects and impending consular duties.

For the EU, normalisation is out of the question until the Syrian regime ends the repression, releases detainees, and engages with all the parties in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 2254.

Myth: The regime never conducted chemical attacks. They were staged by the West or by opposition outlets.

Fact: UN investigators have established and documented the Syrian regime’s responsibility for at least 33 chemical attacks since 2013.

The regime and its allies want the world to believe that the chemical attacks that they carried out during the conflict – in Ghouta in 2013, in Khan Shaykhoun in 2017 or in Douma in 2018, among others – were staged or did not happen in the first place.

In 2018, UN human rights investigators had identified at least 33 chemical attacks perpetrated by regime forces in Syria since 2013. Global Public Policy Institute refers to as many as 336 attacks since 2012, 98% of which are attributed to the regime.  

In April 2021, the OPCW’s second report concluded that units of the Syrian Arab Air Force had used chemical weapons in Saraqib on 4 February 2018.

The European Union has imposed restrictive measures on high-level Syrian officials and scientists for their role in the development and use of chemical weapons. It is ready to consider introducing further measures as appropriate.

Myth: The ‘West’ created and sponsors terrorist organisations.

Fact: The EU is a non-military partner in the Global Coalition to defeat Daesh, and has deployed all its policy instruments to combat Daesh and al-Qaeda.

The Syrian regime and its allies, constantly claim that “Western countries” have created Daesh, and are arming and funding terrorist organisations.

The EU is heavily engaged in  counterterrorism activities with countries affected by Daesh in North Africa, the Middle East and the Western Balkans, as well as with Turkey and many other close security partners. It is committed to countering the threat of Daesh, and has been able to autonomously adopt restrictive measures against Daesh and Al-Qaeda, and persons, groups, undertakings and entities associated with them, since September 2016. It participates, as a non-military partner, in the Global Coalition to counter Daesh in order to maximise co-operation with countries in the region on counterterrorism. It is also funding projects aimed at de-radicalisation, social cohesion and stabilisation in northeast Syria, including in the infamous al-Hol camp.

It should be recalled that the Syrian regime systematically portrays any opponent or critic as a terrorist or a “spy” supported by the US, the EU or both. These are usually the easiest excuses that oppressive regimes resort to in order to silence their opponents.

Myth: The uprising was a foreign conspiracy since the beginning.

Fact: Peaceful Syrian protestors were met with violence and brutal crackdown since the beginning.

Protests in Syria started in 2011, after security forces arrested and tortured a group of school students who drew anti-regime graffiti on the walls of their school in the southern city of Daraa. Syrian crowds then took to the streets to demand dignity, freedom and change. They were inspired by the Arab Spring and their protests were largely peaceful.

In response, security forces opened fire on overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrators, killing many of them. This triggered a crisis that has lasted a decade and continues to this day.

In their initial responses to the deadly crackdown in Daraa, both the adviser of the president and Bashar al-Assad himself provided contradictory statements of what happened. Although they blamed the killings of protestors on an “armed gang” and accused protestors of being armed, at the same time, they admitted  those killings and described them as “unfortunate events” and “individual mistakes” committed by army officers who were not prepared to deal with “new situations”.

In an attempt to contain the situation back then, Assad ordered the removal of the governor of Daraa and sent a delegation there  to attend on his behalf the funeral of some protestors. Did he send a delegation to mourn protestors who are colluding against him and his regime? Were these protestors armed? Pushed by foreign powers? Victims of “individual mistakes” and “unfortunate events? The regime never presented a consistent story. In further attempts to re-write history, it is now often denying that peaceful protests ever happened in the first place.

The only consistent and documented fact is that tens of thousands of peaceful protestors have been systematically arrested, tortured and killed, in Daraa and in the whole of Syria, over the course of the conflict.

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