EU is the biggest donor of humanitarian aid to Syria and wants to play a key role in the country’s post-war future and reconstruction once the war is over. The Assad regime, with the support of Russia and Iran, has regained control of 80 % of the country and continues to bomb rebel positions in Idlib in the northwest and Damascus suburbs. This weekend tension increased after Iran sent an unmanned plane from Syria into Israel which responded with air strikes against targets in Syria. An Israeli plane was shot down. Despite warnings, Iran continues to deliver weapons to Hezbollah and has increased its military presence close to the Israeli border. The situation can easily escalate and spiral out of control.
According to news reports, 300 000 people have fled new fighting in Syria since last December. Only in one 48-hour period in the past week, government strikes killed more than 100 people, mostly civilians. Rebels and civilians face a stark choice – either surrender or die. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have no access to food and medicine.
In the north, Turkey launched an invasion of the Kurdish-held enclave Afrin on 20 January to crush the People’s Protection Units (YPG) because of its alleged ties with Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is outlawed in Turkey and considered a terrorist organisation, and to prevent a contiguous and autonomous Kurdish area in the north of Syria.
The death toll in Afrin continues to increase every day. The Turkish invasion was condemned last week by the European Parliament.
“The conflict is definitely not over,” said Bente Scheller, head of the Beirut office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation at a recent hearing at Brussels Press Club on Syria’s future. “There isn’t yet a post-war situation. The so-called de-escalation zones have become escalation zones with no way out for civilians.”
The de-escalation zones were agreed last September between Iran, Russia and Turkey without EU involvement. The fighting was supposed to cease in the zones which were intended to pave the way for a political solution.
But the Assad regime is deliberately destroying civilian infrastructure and targeting schools and hospitals, she said and warned against believing that EU can influence the regime. Much needed humanitarian aid risk ending up in areas controlled by extremist groups or playing into the hands of the regime which is not allowing the original inhabitants to return to their homes.
“There is no single sign that the regime has honored previous agreements,” Scheller said and mentioned that the regime is still keeping chemical weapons despite an agreement in 2013 to destroy its stockpile of such weapons. “It’s not enough to have a deal with Syria’s backers, Russia and Iran, when the regime is not acting in good faith.”
Jean-Francois Hasperue, with experience of conflict solution in Africa and adviser on Syria at the European External Action Service (EEAS), underlined that there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria. “We need to find options for the future by taking into account all stakeholders inside and outside Syria,” he said and referred to EU’s strategy for Syria which was adopted in March 2017.
The strategy aims at ending the war through a political transition process negotiated by the parties to the conflict, with the support of the UN Special Envoy for Syria and key international and regional actors. It also aims at supporting a national reconciliation process promoting democracy, human rights and the freedom of speech by strengthening Syrian civil society organisations.
Hasperue admitted that the UN-led peace process has not yet led to any results. It managed to bring the parties to talks in Vienna and Geneva but not to make them negotiate directly with each-other. For the time being the UN-led process seems to have been overtaken by Russia which has been organizing its own conference in Sochi with mostly pro-Assad delegates.
According to the strategy, the EU will continue to be the first and leading donor in the international response to what is described as one of the worst humanitarian crises since World War II. Since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011, the EU has mobilised over €9.4 billion in humanitarian aid.
“EU’s role isn’t only economic. We want not only to be a key payer but also a key player,” Hasperue said and announced that a conference on Syria will take place in Brussels towards end of April. “EU will not finance reconstruction of Syria until we have a sustainable solution. Being pragmatic is to look for the most sustainable solution,” he said without entering into any details.
Scheller and Hasperue agreed that accountability for the war crimes committed in Syria should be a priority in the peace process.
Asked by The Brussels Times how Bashar al-Assad could be held accountable, now after he has reconquered lost territories, no answer was given. Assad plunged Syria into a brutal war, which has destroyed the country, after refusing to respond to peaceful demands for democratic changes. With Russian and Iranian support he will apparently remain in power.
In a paper published today (12 February) by the Egmont Institute in Brussels, ambassador Marc Otte, former EU Special Representative for the Middle East Peace Process, quotes EU foreign policy chief Mogherini saying that the EU has one asset, money, that it can use as leverage in creating the conditions for post-war reconstruction.
But that will not be enough in the absence of a coherent and common EU vision of the regional order that should emerge to replace the chronic instability in the region, Otte writes. “Europe is strategically absent in the region”. EU would have to engage with Russia and the US but also pursue a frank and candid dialogue with regional partners, including the most problematic ones.