Thursday

8th Dec 2022

Opinion

What hope for this Syrian donor conference?

  • Syrian children receiving UN world food programme donations. The Fourth Syrian donor conference takes place in Brussels on Tuesday (Photo: WFP)

Disappointing and frustrating: these two words describe best the way Brussels has been dealing with the conflict in Syria so far.

The war has had an impact on the civilian population that is hard to put into words. Hundreds of thousands have been killed, millions lost their homes.

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  • Hannah Neumann MEP (right): 'It goes without saying that Bashar al-Assad must be brought before the International Criminal Court' (Photo: Hannah Neumann)

Syria is located in the EU's close neighbourhood. Laranca, Cyprus, is only 200km away from the Syrian port of Latakia.

Yet the EU has become a bystander in this conflict, because so far, those powers who are militarily engaged – particularly Russia, Iran and Turkey – are determining the course of events.

However, the rules of the game are currently changing.

The need for external assistance in Syria is massive.

Clearly, Russia and Iran have neither the resources nor the intention to finance the reconstruction of the country in any substantial way.

The Syrian currency has gone into a nosedive, the economic crisis in Lebanon is also affecting Syria and US sanctions will further exacerbate the situation.

This leaves room for the EU to strengthen its role and shape the course of events.

Tuesday's (30 June) fourth Brussels Syria donor conference is yet another occasion for the EU to reshape its strategy.

There is an urgent need in Syria for a global player who will not only provide humanitarian aid, but also pay for necessary reconstruction measures.

The EU is already the largest donor of humanitarian aid.

Since 2011, the EU and its member states have mobilised €2bn to assist Syrians in the region. But EU funding for humanitarian aid is largely given with no strings attached.

Who pays piper, calls tune

This must change when it comes to reconstruction in order to prevent that the money is misused to stabilise Assad's regime. To put it bluntly: if the EU is already paying, it should use its money more strategically.

However, this would require an EU strategy for the conditions under which the money should be made available.

The current consensus – to provide reconstruction aid only in case of fundamental reforms, i.e. de facto once Assad is no longer in power – is morally correct, but it is not a realistic option.

Furthermore, it unnecessarily restricts the EU's room for manoeuvre. We will have to ask: Under what conditions should the EU get involved? What influence do we want to secure? Who are we willing to cooperate with?

And above all, how do we deal with those who have committed atrocious human rights crimes? It goes without saying that Bashar al-Assad must be brought before the International Criminal Court.

But the inconvenient truth is: the Syrian regime remains in power and Russia's president Vladimir Putin protects it.

Over the past few months, several think tanks have come up with approaches for the EU to deal with this difficult situation.

"More for more" is one: more reconstruction aid for more reforms, more humanitarian access, release of political prisoners, more democratic participation. Providing reconstruction aid to regions not under central control or directly to recipients whilst by-passing the regime, is another.

Both approaches are accompanied by the call to prioritise projects that directly benefit the population, such as education and health.

In addition, a way is needed to deal with the serious human rights crimes committed in Syria. Impunity would undermine any long-term stability.

International Criminal Court?

However, access to the International Criminal Court is blocked as long as Russia does not agree to refer the Syrian case to it.

So, what else can be done?

The demand for a special tribunal, as in Yugoslavia, is an important benchmark, but not very realistic in the current situation.

The prosecution of crimes outside Syria via so-called universal jurisdiction is an innovative approach as it can currently be observed at a trial in Koblenz, Germany, where a former officer of the Assad regime is facing prosecution for alleged human rights violations, including torture.

This approach should be expanded, also beyond Germany and the Netherlands.

EU member states could thus join forces and pool resources and expertise for such trials.

The EU's sanctions mechanism, which is currently being discussed, will hopefully be used to freeze the accounts of war criminals and restrict their freedom to travel in the near future.

Continuing with the EU's current strategy is not an option for Syria. None of the new approaches outlined comes with a guarantee of success. But they are worth being discussed and tried out.

Otherwise, there is a high risk that the EU member states will to act without coordination and compass, on different fronts, thus further weakening the already limited influence of the EU. Where this can lead to can be observed very well in Libya.

Any debate on the best strategy for Syria that takes into account the realities on the ground will be difficult and tough.

Therefore, the EU and its members states need to urgently engage in such a debate.

The economic pressure on the Assad regime and the donor conference in Brussels on 30 June provide an opportunity for the EU to influence the course of action in Syria.

In the interest of the Syrians living in their country and those in exile, the EU and the member states must not shy away from their responsibility.

It is quite possible that it will otherwise take a very long time for the EU to become a player who is again taken seriously in this conflict.

Author bio

Hannah Neumann is a German MEP for the Greens.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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