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Roundtable discussion: In search of an EU role in Syria’s future

It has been more than seven years that the Syrian civil war broke out, but we may still be far from finding a solution to the conflict that has taken over half a million lives. The Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade (IFAT) organized a roundtable discussion with two experienced diplomats who both served as ambassadors in the Middle Eastern country, aiming to better understand the EU’s role in Syria’s future

Two experienced diplomats took part in the event: Volkmar Wenzel, Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany in Budapest, who was the head of his country’s diplomatic mission in Damascus between 2005 and 2008, and János Budai, now retired Ambassador, stationed in Syria between 2009 and 2012. The roundtable discussion was moderated by Máté Szalai, Coordinator of the Middle East research program in the IFAT.

Ambassador Budai started his opening remarks by underlining three dimensions of the conflict: a domestic, a regional and an international one. On the domestic level, high youth unemployment rate and shrinking economic possibilities should be highlighted among the various causes of the unrest. Furthermore, local tribes play a decisive role in loyalty structures, which should not be ignored by the conflict analysis. Because of these reasons, it would be misleading to label the current conflict as a religious one – stated Ambassador Budai. Due to regional and global consequences of the civil war, Ambassador Budai stressed the necessity for using a geostrategic framework in order to better understand the conflict and eventually find a solution to it.

In the beginning of his speech, Ambassador Wenzel underlined that the European Union should not look for a role for itself in Syria, but rather for a solution to end the civil war. Due to the complexity of the situation, European states should adopt “strategic patience” and should not believe in quick resolutions. According to the German Ambassador, the best hope on the short run is only to reduce violence and freeze the conflict to avoid further bloodshed. European countries should also avoid further military engagement in Syria and should keep contributing to develop the humanitarian conditions, and with the help of local actors to improve security. Even though the EU is the biggest humanitarian donor in Syria, many assume it wrongly that the organization has little focus on the civil war and does not devote sufficient resources to tackle the crisis.

During the discussion, both participants agreed that the EU may have overestimated its own influence during the years of the so called “Arab Spring”. Ambassador Wenzel added that many have underestimated the notion that the revolt would result in an armed conflict. The participants disagreed to some extent on the current impact of the European Union – on the one hand Ambassador Budai argued that (partially due to failures in coordination) the EU did not live up to its potential, while Ambassador Wenzel on the other was more optimistic, claiming that the EU should not be underestimated. Because of controversial involvements of other regional and global actors and because of the balancing activities of the Syrian government, the EU might be a crucial player in the reconstruction and in the stabilization process.