Syria remains a country ravaged by conflict and a deep humanitarian crisis, a place of conflicting interests of multiple state and non-state actors, says the Chargé d'Affaires of the European Union to Syria, Dan Stoenescu*. In an interview for TVR and Veridica, Dan Stoenescu explained that, although it doesn’t recognize the Assad regime, the EU keeps communication channels open in order to provide assistance to the Syrian people. The EU official also spoke about the link between the war in Syria and the one in Ukraine.
“Syria is not a safe place for anyone right now”
VERIDICA: We should first understand why your position is Chargé d'Affaires, and not ambassador. You are the head of the European Union delegation to Syria, and you reside in Lebanon.
DAN STOENESCU: The answer is very simple. The European Union does not recognize the Bashar al-Assad regime. For 11 years, the EU has had a difficult relationship with Damascus, and it’s normal it should be so, because we don’t recognize Bashar al-Assad as the legitimate president of Syria. The EU’s policy is clear on the matter. The European Union opposes any normalization, reconstruction and the lifting of sanctions until it sees a legitimate political transition in Syria. For this reason, I was not accredited as ambassador to president Bashar al-Assad.
VERIDICA: Information on Syria is scarce in Romania. The civil war in this country remains one of the biggest humanitarian crises since World War II, although the number of Ukrainian refugees has already exceeded the number of people who’ve fled Syria since the start of both wars. Let me give you a few examples. Starting 2011, when the civil war in Syria started, some 400,000 people have died, 100,000 are missing, 12 million Syrians are dislocated, half of them abroad, the other half across the country. Whereas 5 years ago, every day saw 200 attacks, today there are only 40 attacks every month. Nevertheless, 91 civilians died in August. These are the latest figures. Are hostilities ongoing in Syria?
DAN STOENESCU: Syria is not a safe place for anyone right now. Of course, hostilities continue across Syria, and I’m not just referring to areas controlled by Damascus authorities, I’m also talking about northwestern Syria, which is ruled by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, an Islamist organization tied to al-Nusra and Daesh that has established a Syrian salvation government in the northwest. There is trouble brewing in the northeast as well, where Ankara threatens to attack Kurdish areas. Besides, Israel bombs the Damascus and Aleppo provinces almost on a weekly basis, targeting infrastructure objectives of strategic interest to Iran. So no, under no circumstances is Syria a safe place.
VERIDICA: Syria may be very far from Romania, but Ukraine is very close. Right now, global politics is like a huge string of dominos. Four global or regional actors have a stake in Syria right now: the United States, which in 2014 launched its campaign against the Islamic State, Turkey, which starting 2016 has been fighting Kurds in the north, Iran, which is backing Shiite militias in Syria, and Russia, starting 2015. At present, are we still talking about a civil war in Syria, which is how it started back in 2011? Or is it rather a war by proxy?
DAN STOENESCU: I can say it’s both. I would also add Israel to your list. I would also add Iran and Teheran-backed militias. I would also add the Islamic State, which is still operating in areas in southern and northeastern Syria. Therefore, the situation is rather unstable, and this lack of stability does not favor the European Union. You said there is great distance between Syria and Europe. I beg to differ – there are merely 200 kilometers between Larnaca in Cyprus and the port of Latakia in Syria.
VERIDICA: Turkey today is a buffer zone for refugees. There are 3.7 million refugees in Turkey, over half a million in Istanbul alone.
DAN STOENESCU: Indeed, and we are concerned about their future, because Syrians are feeling less and less comfortable in Turkey. As you may know, presidential elections will be held in Turkey next week, and president Erdoğan and his party, AKP, will run again. Unfortunately, the issue of refugees is brought to the fore not just by his party, but by parties across the entire political spectrum in Turkey. More and more Syrians in Turkey want to come to the European Union. I don’t believe we have reached the moment of 2015. If you remember, at the time over 1 million Syrians left Syria and Lebanon and headed to Turkey and Europe. They crossed the border very easily through Greece, Serbia, Hungary and went to Germany, Sweden and other countries in Europe. Yet we are seeing more and more Syrians from Turkey, Lebanon and Syria itself, who are now coming to the European Union, either by land or by sea. Today, immigrants no longer stop in Cyprus. They go straight to Italy, and to us this is a long-term problem. Syria should be of concern to all of us, because it is a country that can export not just illegal migrants, but terrorism and narcotics too. For this very reason, it’s important decision-makers in the European Union should get closely involved in our joint policy on Syria.
VERIDICA: Over a million Syrian refugees reached the European Union in 2015, most of them settling in Germany. This year, in September, two far-right parties ranked 1st and 2nd in parliamentary elections in Italy and Sweden, respectively, immigration being the centerpiece of their campaign right now. Turkey is the buffer zone, receiving large sums of money from the European Union to manage the flow of migrants. At the same time, Turkey wants part of the Syrian immigrants to go back home and claims it will build 100 thousand homes in northern Syria. Is Turkey blackmailing or pressuring Brussels with respect to letting Syrians into Europe?
DAN STOENESCU: There is certainly some form of pressure, that much is clear. You call it blackmail. I would call it pressure. Obviously, Turkey pursues its own interests, and at one point we can understand what these are. Turkey faces constant attacks from PKK militias in northern Syria. And it’s only natural Turkey would want to protect its own security. At the same time, Turkey has strategic interests in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, as you’ve well noticed the agreement with Libya and the tensions with Greece. Of course, Turkey remains an important player the European Union is closely working with, and EU taxpayers are paying large sums of money to Ankara to deal with these refugees. For us, it is important to keep the dialogue open with Ankara in order to come up with solutions. What I want to stress is the fact that Syria is not a place for refugees to return to right now. I have talked to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on this matter, and our position has been crystal clear: for refugees to be able to return to Syria, there should be a political process that should involve Damascus in a genuine and reliable manner. And that, unfortunately, is not something we’re seeing. Nevertheless, we are making efforts in that direction. As head of the European Union delegation to Syria, operating out of Beirut, I go to Damascus on a weekly basis. I talk to Damascus officials, explaining how important it is for them to be part of a political process. Of course, the situation is difficult for Damascus authorities, given the current global context and the war in Ukraine. As you know, there are Russian troops deployed in the area controlled by the Assad regime.
VERIDICA: There are Syrians in Ukraine fighting for Russia.
DAN STOENESCU: Yes, there are, but, according to our data, they are very few. When the war started, we were very concerned this conflict might expand and that thousands of Syrians might fight for Russia. I’ve also seen Chechens fighting in Ukraine. This is a republic of the Russian Federation, so it is not surprising. Yet I haven’t seen any Syrians. Of course, I have cautioned Damascus authorities it would be wise if Syria didn’t get overinvolved in other conflicts, because the humanitarian situation is worse as it is at home and they should have other priorities. Early recovery is key for Syria, building up resistance at society level, where suffering is great. There is a severe food security crisis in Syria. The drought this year has obviously made things worse. And on top of it all, we are also struggling with a cholera epidemic. A disease that has been eradicated in Europe ever since the Middle Ages, if I’m not mistaken, cholera has reemerged in Syria and it’s spreading fast, not just in areas controlled by Damascus, but also in the northeast, the northwest and among Syrian refugees traveling to Europe. A few days ago, I attended an EU ambassadors’ conference in Brussels, and I spoke to a lot of Syrians who are living in Brussels right now. The numbers of Syrians emigrating to Europe are growing, and they’ve told me cases of cholera have been identified among groups of Syrian migrants. Therefore, the humanitarian situation is very serious, and it’s worse than a few years ago and a lot worse than during the war. The military conflict has toned down a bit, as you’ve mentioned, but under no circumstances have hostilities ceased.
“We are talking to Damascus because we want to contribute to the welfare of the Syrian people”
VERIDICA: Let us better understand the situation: right now, we’re talking about frozen borders between territories controlled by various factions. To a certain extent, behind every faction there is one of these global or regional players. In the end, do you believe a peace process will solve the situation and restore Syria to its pre-war borders? Right now, the Assad regime controls approximately 60% of Syria’s original territory. Do you see any progress in the peace-making process? The latest meeting scheduled in July in Geneva was cancelled. What are the main obstacles and who is taking part in peace negotiations, as long as the European Union does not recognize the Assad regime?
DAN STOENESCU: The European Union does not recognize the Assad regime. For good reason, however, we firmly support the UN peace-making process and the mandate of the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen. Of course, there are talks between the regime and the opposition at the level of a constitutional committee. These talks take place in Geneva, and unfortunately, as you’ve mentioned, negotiations broke down because of Russia, which has different priorities at present. The European Union has supported political dialogue as the best solution to the Syrian conflict. We don’t see military force as the best method of solving Syria’s problems. For this particular reason, we support Resolution 2254 of the UN Security Council (of 2015, e.n.) and the involvement of all international stakeholders. We cannot have a legitimate political process in Syria without the participation of every stakeholder, including Damascus authorities, the United States, which have troops deployed in northeastern Syria, Turkey, and even Iran and Russia, and the UN Special Envoy is making great efforts in that respect. We had a very fruitful round of talks in Beirut a few days ago with Special Envoy Geir Pedersen, who went to Damascus. We’re now waiting for Damascus authorities to respond, the ball is in their court and we expect them to get involved in this political process in a consistent manner. Let me give you a few eloquent examples. We want Syria to open up to a political process that observes democracy, human rights, a political process that should respect the Syrian people. Damascus authorities have made a number of steps in that direction. For instance, they passed Decree no. 7 of April 2022, which provides general amnesty to political prisoners. However, so far only 500 political prisoners have been released. According to organizations monitoring the rights of political prisoners, there are over 100,000 such prisoners in Syria. Unfortunately, we don’t know how many of these 100,000 political prisoners are still alive. Yet Damascus must get involved in a consistent manner and see that this decree is implemented. We are exerting pressure and making efforts in Damascus to make that happen. It’s important for Damascus authorities to build up trust with the international community. Unfortunately, this trust disappeared in the 11 years of military conflict, which killed 400,000 people, just like you’ve said, while another 1 million were wounded. Basically, every family in Syria has had members who were killed or injured. 12 million people were dislocated across the country. Of the total population of 21 million people, half have abandoned their homes.
VERIDICA: And since we are talking about negotiations and the Assad regime… This man, they say in the Western chancelleries, could be tried for war crimes. This man subsidizes his regime from drug, oil, and other types of trafficking. He is already nicknamed “Pablo Escobar of Syria”. The international press is talking about 20 factories that produce amphetamines in the area controlled by the Assad regime and another 12 on the border with Lebanon and Jordan. Under these circumstances, is this man a dialogue partner still?
DAN STOENESCU: At the moment, we are not having a dialogue with president Bashar al-Assad. We are having a fairly low-level dialogue with the authorities in Damascus, because we are interested in contributing to the welfare of the Syrian people. With the help of Russia and Iran, Bashar al-Assad is still at the helm of Syria, at least the area controlled by the government in Damascus, as was his father, Hafez al-Assad. We are, of course, very concerned about this constant export of drugs, which reach not only the European Union, but also Gulf countries. Millions of pills have been intercepted by Jordanian authorities at the border between Syria and Jordan, and we are concerned that this drug problem may develop further. I have been to certain areas in Syria and some pharmacists have even retrained and are now making drugs, because it is much more profitable to make drugs than to sell medicine. It is precisely for this reason that it is important that we, the European Union, support the resilience of the Syrian people. We must create opportunities for Syrians to develop in their own country. We need to have a more extensive dialogue with all parties involved in the conflict and maintain hope for them. Unfortunately, far more Syrians are currently leaving Syria than returning to areas where, admittedly, from a security point of view, the situation has improved. So, it is important to have more early recovery, to develop projects in terms of infrastructure at the level of rehabilitation, at the level of access to drinking water and electricity for ordinary Syrians.
“It becomes increasingly obvious, by the day, that Russia is not a credible player on the international stage, as it is negotiating access to humanitarian aid for some victims”
VERIDICA: Let’s now go back to the political realm, after which we will focus on the humanitarian aspect. Right now, in the context of the war in Ukraine, everything that happens in Syria must be put in relation to Ukraine. As recently as July, Russia vetoed a one-year extension of the humanitarian corridor linking Turkey to the Idlib province in the northwest. The victims in this area received the most important humanitarian aid since the World War II, more than 56,000 trucks with aid. There are 4 million victims, 1.7 million living in tents. Is it a means of pressure used by Russia? Are these things also being negotiated, are the situations in Ukraine and Syria related?
DAN STOENESCU: Of course, it becomes increasingly obvious, by the day, that Russia is not a credible player on the international stage, as it is negotiating access to humanitarian aid for victims, 4 million victims in northwestern Syria. Unfortunately, Resolution 2642, recently voted by the Security Council, only allows six-month access to humanitarian aid coming from Turkey to Syria. For us, it is very clear, regardless of Russia's position; our position, the European Union's, is clear: we cannot let 4 million victims endure hunger and cold. And precisely for this reason, regardless of what will be decided at international level, we will support them. With or without Russia's consent. What is important is to maintain this international involvement of humanitarian actors. Of course, it is preferable to involve Russia in this process, but it is very difficult to involve a state that is bombing innocent people in Ukraine, and not only in Ukraine. Basically, the same thing happened in Syria. The very commander of the Russian military forces in Ukraine is the former commander in Syria (Gen. Sergey Surovikin, e.n.) and if we look at how the city of Aleppo was bombed, how the city of Homs was bombed, we see exactly how Russia behaved in Syria and see how it is behaving now in Ukraine. Unfortunately, the war in Syria gave Russia the opportunity to become an international player again after the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia had become a regional player, it was involved in Transnistria, in South Ossetia, in Abkhazia. But Syria provided a platform for Russia to become an international player again. Unfortunately, I believe that the West did not react properly when Russia illegally occupied Crimea and when Russia got involved in Syria. And now, unfortunately, we suffer the consequences.
VERIDICA: Could Russia's alliance with Iran reshape the situation in Syria?
DAN STOENESCU: This is no news. Russia and Iran have always been allies in Syria, de facto, not de jure, and they have always coordinated their moves. And it's not just Iran, it's also the Lebanese Shiite militias, Hezbollah, and other pro-Iranian militias. I don't think this alliance is a surprise to anyone. But in the long run, Russia and Iran have different interests. Iran has very clear interests, interests that span decades, if not hundreds of years. There is this Shia crescent that connects Iran to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, all the Shia communities. And Iran wants to force this Shiite connection and even has plans and is even colonizing Sunni areas in Syria. Russia, on the other hand, has strategic interests, continues to have military bases from the time of the Soviet Union, and wants to show that it is an international player with which the West needs to talk.
VERIDICA: Russia and Iran support Bashar al-Assad. Turkey is waging a war against the Kurds in northern Syria, but also one against Assad. Recently, at a conference attended by the presidents of the three countries (July 20, 2022, e.n.), Turkey tried to get the consent of Russia and Iran for a new incursion in the north. Iran and Russia objected. The European Union has sanctioned Turkey for the war it is waging in northern Syria, some European countries have stopped arms exports to Turkey. The press speculates that this was one of the reasons why Turkey opposed Finland and Sweden joining NATO. In the end, what does Turkey seek to achieve in northern Syria?
DAN STOENESCU: Turkey wants to ensure its security in northern Syria and fight the PKK militias, designated a terrorist organization by both Turkey and the European Union. Turkey wants to create a 30-km security corridor in northern Syria. Of course, it is important for us to maintain the integrity and sovereignty of Syria, and incursions into the territory of a sovereign state are not accepted, according to international law. Turkey has its own interests, and it is also important to consider the elections held in 2023. Basically, I think that all these discussions are important not only from a strategic point of view, but we can also interpret them in an electoral key.
VERIDICA: Let's go back to the people now. In the 90s, Syria had a much stronger middle class than Romania, life was better in Syria than in Romania. It was a prosperous country. Today, prices have increased eight times compared to 2011. Civil servants’ wages are worth some 15 USD, 13 million people are faced with food insecurity, 90% live in poverty. There is talk of the worst humanitarian crisis in history. The Syrian Pound is selling at 1% of its pre-civil war value on the black market. Under these circumstances, the European Union is one of the most important donors for Syria, with 27 billion EUR, for both people in Syria and the refugees in Europe and the region. Do you have control over these funds, so that European money is not embezzled by the Assad regime?
DAN STOENESCU: It is very important for us to finance projects that have nothing to do with the Bashar al-Assad regime. As you know, the European Union has imposed sanctions targeting members of the Assad regime. There are more than 200 people who are targeted by EU sanctions. Of course, the United States has also imposed sanctions. Any project that is financed by the European Union through the United Nations is very well analyzed. If we notice that there is any connection with people linked to the regime, we do not fund this project. Of course, we also have a regional dialogue mechanism with all the UN agencies and we regularly have discussions on specific projects and we make sure that the European Union's money, the European taxpayer's money, does not flow into the pockets of the regime. And I'm not just talking about the Bashar al-Assad regime here. We also have projects in the north-east of Syria, where the Syrian Democratic Forces exist. We also have projects in areas controlled by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (Organization for the Liberation of the Levant, e.n.) and we make sure, in all these areas, that the money does not flow into the pockets of people who are close to this entity. Also, we support not only United Nations agencies, but we also provide funds to international non-governmental organizations in all these areas, and it is important to act at several levels. Before the conflict started, there were not many international non-governmental organizations in Damascus, but now there are, and it is important to support them. It is important to have an international presence in order to put pressure on the regime in Damascus and have it engage concretely in a political transition.
“The situation in Ukraine is linked to the situation in Syria, not only from a strategic point of view, but also from a food security point of view”
VERIDICA: What is happening in Iran? You probably have more information than the press here. What's the story about these protests? What is the background?
DAN STOENESCU: Of course, these protests that started with the death of Mahsa Amini have been the biggest protests in Iran since the 2008 elections, if I'm not mistaken. The Iranian people want more freedom. It is a normal thing in a globalized world, where the Iranians see that in other countries, in Europe, in the West, in general, people have the right to express themselves freely. It's normal for them to want this and it doesn't surprise me. What disappoints me is that Tehran continues to respond in a very harsh way to these calls for democracy. It is important for us to support the Iranian people, to have a democratic Iran that would be a partner in the Middle East. For now, Iran is not a dialogue partner, even though we have a dialogue regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Unfortunately, the negotiations are not progressing as we would like, but the pressure continues.
VERIDICA: Does Russia have other interests, also with a view to solving this issue?
DAN STOENESCU: I wouldn't link everything to Russia. Russia and Iran have common interests, but they also have interests of their own. Here, it is clearly about Iran's own interests.
VERIDICA: Israel has so far stayed out of the war in Ukraine, but after this summit and after Russia reconfirmed a closer alliance with Iran, it appears that Israel is reconsidering its position on Ukraine and that it might supply it with weapons. Moreover, recently rockets have been launched on Damascus, on the airport. Israeli media speculate that Israel may even bomb Assad's palace. How much will Israel's change of position matter in this context, in Syria and Ukraine?
DAN STOENESCU: Israel has predictable propositions regarding Syria. Israel is bombing Iranian targets in Syria, including Syrian infrastructure; recently it has bombed the Damascus airport, the Aleppo airport and many other targets in the Damascus area. Of course, we cannot link everything to the relationship with Russia, but as you know, Russia is a reliable partner of the authorities in Damascus and now, more so, given that Russia is getting more involved in Ukraine, it will have a direct influence on the relationship with Israel. Certain military equipment that could have supported the authorities in Damascus in countering the Israeli bombings was moved to Ukraine. That's what the international press says. This would allow Israel to continue its campaign to protect its interests. Israel has strategic interests and wants to avoid Israeli towns and villages being bombed by non-state actors or those linked to certain states on the border with Syria. And not surprisingly, it does so to protect its own interests and the security interests of its citizens.
VERIDICA: In the end, I suggest we go back to Ukraine. Will the situation in Ukraine influence that in Syria? DAN STOENESCU: The situation in Ukraine is related to the situation in Syria, not only from a strategic point of view, but also from a food security point of view. Most of the grain that used to feed the Syrian population would come from Russia, from Ukraine, especially from Ukraine. Now, this no longer happens. Of course, the price of grain has risen worldwide. More than 14.6 million Syrians have problems securing the necessary sources of food and it is a worrying fact. That is precisely why the situation in Ukraine is also affecting Syria.
*Dan Stoenescu is the European Union's Chargé d'Affaires to Syria. Before this mandate, he was Romania’s ambassador to Tunisia and Minister delegate for relations with Romanians abroad. His diplomatic experience includes Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa. He was also the president of the network of national cultural institutes in Lebanon.