The sudden and unexpected rise and military success of ISIS in Iraq and Syria over the summer has led to a dramatic shift on the ground in the Middle East, in Western public opinion and subsequently in the involvement of the international community. A coalition of Arab and Western countries, led by the USA, has started a military campaign against ISIS in Iraq and since September in Syria. The coalition is supported by most EU Member States. But how does this affect the Syrian population? Syrians have been suffering violence and war crimes since the beginning of the popular uprising more than three years ago. With a death toll of around 250.000, over 3 million refugees and an even higher number of IDP’s and large parts of the country in ruins, the Syrian civil war is the most violent and destructive conflict at the moment. The rise of ISIS is not so much the cause of the current crisis in Syria, but the result of the failure of the international community to find a solution to the conflict and to protect civilians in Syria. Now the response to the rise of ISIS is mainly a military one and lacks a clear political objective. However, any meaningful strategy against ISIS in Syria (as in Iraq) needs to address the root causes of the conflict and keep the protection of civilians against gross human rights violations and war crimes as its primary objective. EU and EU Member States have previously ended their formal relation with the Assad regime in response to serious human rights violations and recognised and built relations to the Syrian Opposition Coalition. Europe has contributed generously to the humanitarian aid to Syrians. These have been important steps, yet this policy has not been enough to find a solution for the conflict, enabling political transition in Syria and to protect civilians. The new stage in the international involvement in Syria and Iraq demands a rethinking of strategies. How can Europe contribute to a much needed broader political strategy for Syria?
These recommendations were presented at the event “The Conflict in Syria and the Responsibility of the European Union” co-organised by the offices European Union and Middle East Beirut of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung and PAX (formerly PAX Christi, the Netherlands) held on 4 November 2014. The event built on previous events on Syria in 2012 and 2013.