How EU officials’ visits to Syria give share in “Illusion Building”
Enab Baladi – Hussam al-Mahmoud
Over the past few months, European officials have intensified their visits to regime-controlled areas in Syria under the guise of humanitarian aid and “early recovery” while also talking about the right of all Syrians to “return” to Syria.
The most recent visit by the Chargé d’Affaires of the European Union to Syria, Dan Stoenescu, took place on 13 September, during which he met with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi. During this meeting, he said that Syrians have the right to “return to their homes” but that conditions had not yet been met.
These visits open the door to questions concerning the mechanism for European engagement with the Syrian regime, as long as the European official position prohibits any diplomatic association or contact; yet, such visits fall within this particular framework.
Member of the European Parliament, Katrin Langensiepen, explained to Enab Baladi that the European Parliament drew up an agreement in 2021 prohibiting any diplomatic contact or engagement with the “Assad regime,” she said while expressing her dismay at the European official’s visits.
Member of the European Parliament (MEP) since 2019, Deputy Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament with responsibility for the Syrian and Sub-Saharan Africa regions, and Vice-Chair of the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs.
Not the first
Speaking about the “interactive meeting” with the High Commissioner for Refugees on Twitter, the European official, Dan Stoenescu, confirmed the “EU’s support for the ongoing work and assessment of the UNHCR in Syria, which has a clear mandate to protect refugees and promote durable solutions to their cause, including voluntary repatriation, where appropriate. Conditions should be created for their “safe, voluntary, and dignified return, as well as the return of internally displaced persons, in accordance with international law and the principle of non-refoulement,” he noted.
However, the European Parliament official expressed her reservations about the location of the visit, stating that it had a human motive, which was uncontested. But she wondered why it was taking place on Syrian territory, pointing out the possibility of going to Lebanon or Turkey, where a large proportion of refugees reside, not to Syria, where the European Parliament prohibited any diplomatic contact with its regime.
This visit was also preceded on 8 August by another tour by Dan Stoenescu in several Syrian cities for the first time since 2011.
On Twitter, the European Union account stated at the time that the visit came jointly with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
The visit included the governorates of Homs, Hama, and Aleppo, with Syria’s humanitarian needs rising rapidly considering that the “crisis is not yet over.”
Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Katrin Langensiepen stressed that she was clueless as to who granted Dan Stoenescu the authorization for a visit of this kind to Syria despite the existence of European sanctions.
Dan Stoenescu’s talk after his second visit about the “voluntary return” issue is not the only European message in this context. On the same day, and about an hour earlier, the European Union’s Twitter account in Syria confirmed its support for “voluntary return” when appropriate conditions are met.
This return is intercepted by numerous pending files in the Syrian case, according to Katrin Langensiepen; there is the issue of enforced disappearance and the prosecution of civilians by the security forces, as well as the file of detainees and prisons, including the Sednaya prison.
Syria is not safe
Speaking to Enab Baladi, Katrin Langensiepen explained that the only communication that the European Union can make with the regime is limited to humanitarian aid, arguing that European officials’ visits to Syria, as well as the images and statements, appear to be a strategy to show that situations are improving in regime-held areas.
She attributed this step to “encouraging voluntary return,” according to the perspective of European officials. At the same time, she referred to “two essential points,” namely that Syria, in particular regime-controlled areas, was unsafe and that there was no such “voluntary return,” as conditions were unfavorable. European visits offer unequivocal signals and messages that Syria is on the road to recovery, which is contrary to reality.
On 14 September, the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria warned of a possible renewed military escalation in Syria, which could further perpetuate the suffering of Syrians.
The 50-page report on the human rights situation in Syria between 1 January and 30 June noted that the fighting mobilization between Turkish forces and their allies and the mobilization of Kurdish forces and their allies in northern Syria is continuous.
The report also touches on the presence of several fatal incidents that have occurred recently in Syria, including the bombing of a crowded market in the city of al-Bab, killing at least 16 civilians, including five children, and wounding 36 last August.
War crimes related to torture and ill-treatment committed in the Syrian regime’s prisons continued, with torture in prisons amounting to the death of some detainees, according to said report.
“Not to have Bashar al-Assad”
Certain countries that make up the largest human reservoir of Syrian refugees, such as Turkey and Lebanon, have recently tended to push for the return of Syrians from their hosting countries to Syria under various designations such as “voluntary return,” “safe return,” etc.
However, this “return” is related to the conditions of the receiving countries as well, as it coincides with the internal political and economic situations and changes experienced by the aforementioned countries, such as the Turkish elections scheduled for next year and the dilapidated economic conditions in Lebanon and the level of its government’s ties with the Syrian regime.
MEP Katrin Langensiepen stressed that Turkey, with its “voluntary return” project, which has been clearly launched by the Turkish President since last May, contradicts the agreement it signed with the European Union, which stipulated that Syrians should not be returned in exchange for financial support covering their needs in various sectors.
On creating conditions for the return of Syrian refugees, Langensiepen explained that what is happening is a step-by-step strategy, as the European Union would not say that “Syria is safe.” However, gradually through visits and statements and the use of soft and light-toned language, it is suggested that Syria is improving and that there is a possibility of returning Syrians. Langensiepen stressed that all this was contrary to sanctions and the prohibition of diplomatic contact and engagement with the Syrian regime.
She considered that these visits are deceiving people, as even the previous visit of the head of the EU Delegation to Syria, Dan Stoenescu, last August took place in conjunction with a holiday for the members of the European Parliament.
She also hoped that such visits would not mean progressive or implicit recognition of the Syrian regime’s legitimacy or to re-establish relations with it in any way, considering that the appropriate circumstance for the return of Syrians is “not to have Bashar al-Assad” and that the detainees are released and freedoms granted. The support that al-Assad receives from Russia hinders even the possibility of reaching a place or point through which it is possible to visit prisons and detention centers, such as Sednaya prison, and monitor their reality.
Langensiepen noted the importance of visiting areas beyond the regime’s control in northeastern and northwestern Syria, as well as discussing the situation of Syrians in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, rather than visiting Damascus.
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