European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura address a news conference during an international conference on the future of Syria and the region, in Brussels, Belgium, April 25, 2018. .
(photo credit: REUTERS/FRANCOIS WALSCHAERTS)
Seven years after the Syrian civil war broke out, representatives from 57 countries gathered in Brussels for a two-day conference this week on “supporting the future of Syria and the region.”
EU High Representative Federica Mogherini urged a political process for peace in Syria while admitting that “the times are not encouraging” and that what was happening was “almost a disaster.”
Fatigue has set in after so many years of war and the inability of the UN-backed international peace process in Geneva to achieve results. Instead, Russia, Turkey, Iran and the US have carved out spheres of influence in Syria and largely run their own processes on the ground.
Dubbed “Brussels II,” the UN said at the conference that ended Wednesday that it was looking for more than $9 billion in aid for Syria, including some $4b. to be spent within Syria and $5b. for Syrian refugees.
There are millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. In Lebanon and Jordan, the large numbers of refugees are a major concern for the host countries as they now represent a significant minority of the population.
But donors are reticent. According to The Guardian, Germany, the EU and UK have been the main backers of the new funding drive, but the UK was disappointed that the Gulf countries did not pledge more. Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Recep Akdag said the EU’s unwillingness to share the refugee burden was a “disappointing failure.”
Mogherini said that the EU has already spent $11b. in aid. “We need in particular Russia and Iran to exercise pressure on Damascus so that it accepts to sit at the table under UN auspices,” she said. Mogherini also made clear that the EU would not finance reconstruction in Syria until a political process was underway leading to a democratic and inclusive Syria. Nineteen UN agencies and 250 non-governmental organizations attended the conference.
US threats to cancel the Iran deal hung in the air.
“The deal we have in place now, today – the only existing deal for the moment – is working,” Mogherini said. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that Iran supported a cease-fire in Syria. It was supposedly a “top priority” for Tehran to end the crisis and Iran was prepared to work with other states in the region toward that end.
While the conference was taking place, there was ongoing fighting in south Damascus between the regime and ISIS fighters in Yarmouk, a Palestinian area. In addition, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has a mission in Syria collecting samples from the site of an alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus.
Human rights groups, such as Friends of Syria, had urged before the conference that the participants would work to try to stop the killing in Syria. But the actual conference didn’t seek to hold the Syrian regime accountable.
As was done over the past seven years, the conference mostly payed lip service but did not focus on action.
By focusing on funding, the meeting looked to plug the gaps of countries hosting refugees just enough to remove the potential for a crisis. This is intended to create enough stability as to not have a repeat of 2015 when one million refugees, many of them Syrians, sought to enter Europe.
Russia and the US seemed to have largely ignored the conference and Iran turned up only to burnish its image as wanting peace – a Janus-faced policy it has used regarding Syria in order to ensure its influence continues in Damascus and in Europe.
The fact that the EU is seeking to withhold aid from reconstruction is an important message for the Syrian regime that it will not be rewarded for its actions, but it leaves untouched the need to hold the regime accountable.
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