Syria five years on: Time for the EU to step up

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Aleppo has been mercilessly bombed during the Syrian Civil War. [Freedom House/Flickr]

Having seen first-hand the evolution of the Syria conflict, Dr. Osama Abo Elezz believes that it has now reached a tipping point that could either result in a peace deal, or spell disaster for the country.

Dr. Osama Abo Elezz is a surgeon in an Aleppo hospital and the Aleppo Coordinator for the Syrian American Medical Society.

As a medical student five years ago and now a surgeon at one of Aleppo’s main hospitals in Aleppo I tended to some of the first casualties of the government’s response to the crisis that erupted in 2011. With the world standing by as spectators  that reaction precipitated a conflict that has now claimed the lives of up to 500,000 Syrians by some counts and forced millions to flee their homes. At 4.6 million, Syrians now form the largest refugee population on earth since World War II.

The political agreement signed by the US, Russia and others in Munich last month has potential to be a turning point in this bloody catastrophe. However, if this deal is not followed through, the crisis will likely intensify, forcing hundreds of thousands more Syrians to flee, and demonstrating once more to extremists and Assad that the world has become impotent to their campaigns.

We have reached a tipping point in the crisis: a point where we could broker a genuine political solution for Syria, or where we could push the country off a precipice.

Europe understands that the conflict in Syria is no longer a distant war. Germans have opened their homes to Syrians fleeing the destruction of theirs. Each day on Greek islands, Europeans are providing blankets, new shoes, and medical care to those fleeing the destruction of their homeland. If the conflict continues, even more will need to leave their homes behind.

The US has stepped back from leading the quest to find a solution to the Syrian crisis and in their absence, the responsibility falls on the EU to provide leadership. Merkel’s name has almost become synonymous with moral leadership on providing safety for Syrian refugees, in spite of the resistance she has faced against this in Germany. Yet while we should certainly be providing safety to Syrians in Europe, Europe also needs to lead on solving the crisis at home from which they flee.

Europe needs to make sure that the international community does not cave in entirely to Russia’s demands on what a political settlement in Syria should look like. A peace that would entrench President Assad is not acceptable to the majority of Syrians and it will not lay the foundations for lasting stability in the region or to end refugee flows. Above all, a deal that keeps Assad in power will further fuel extremism and ultimately strengthen ISIS, no matter how many bombs the US or Russia drops.

Following the recent ceasefire there has been a significant drop in airstrikes in Aleppo. Shops are cautiously reopening and children are returning to the parks, but it is a fragile lull so the European Union needs to make sure it holds. They also need to ensure that aid deliveries can unconditionally reach millions in need – especially those starving to death in besieged cities. For too long the warring parties have been allowed to veto aid deliveries, a veto which every day condemns Syrians to death.

However, whatever progress is made on the humanitarian front cannot be a substitute for political progress. Neither should progress on the humanitarian situation become a smokescreen behind which Russian attacks on civilian continue. Dying from airstrikes and dying from starvation are both brutal and needless ways for Syrians to die.

The EU can learn from their experience in Ukraine here: Russia needs to come under pressure to change its calculations. The ceasefire in Ukraine in far from perfect, but there is no doubt that the sanctions that the EU enforced over Ukraine changed Russia’s approach towards the area, including their support for the rebels.

Against all the odds, Syrians still hold out hope that they can live to see the peaceful and dignified future they have always wanted. It is a future that the crisis continues to deny them and despite the untold death and displacement Syrians will never relinquish this hope.

In years to come, European leaders will be remembered either for the steps they took to protect Syrians in their hour of need or their complicity as hundreds of thousands of innocent people were slaughtered.

Now is when that legacy will be decided. Syrians are calling on Angela Merkel to seize the moment and make sure Syria receives a genuine political process that can be the foundation for a peaceful country. In the interest of peace in Syria, stability in the region as well as an end to the refugee crisis in Europe.

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