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Syria: Humanitarian Aid Versus Sharks and Leeches

Analysis - 17 March 2021

Europe has instituted an annual spring meeting to draw the international community’s attention to the Syrian issue. The fifth edition of the Brussels conference is set to take place at the end of March. Each year, the Union hopes it will be an opportunity to make its contribution to the political process but with negotiations at an impasse, it will once again content itself with asking other countries and international organizations to renew their pledges to provide humanitarian aid.

Europe’s political position is nevertheless clear. Led mainly by France, the EU continues to defend the stance of isolating the Syrian regime for the crimes against humanity it has - and still is - committing. In this regard, the EU is preparing to declare that it will not recognize the sham presidential elections Bashar al-Assad intends to organize at the end of May.

The timing of this firm message is of the essence: whilst the Biden administration is slow to formulate its policy on Syria, Moscow is once again lobbying certain hesitant European and Arab countries to renew their diplomatic and economic ties with the Syrian regime. It is therefore essential for the European Union to block the way to such temptations of normalizing with Assad after the so-called elections, and locking in a united European position.

There hasn’t been any credible negotiations in ten years. Even the modest process underway in Geneva with the Constitutional Committee tasked with drafting a new constitution is moribund even though Russia was in favour of this track. The Kremlin has several reasons for not letting go of its pariah client in Damascus, and is still seeking the political arrangement that will legitimize its military victory. The Kremlin is therefore likely to allow or even support the pseudo-elections that will enable Assad to proclaim Urbi et Orbi a renewed legitimacy. 

In Washington, there is discord between the experts and former diplomats in charge of the dossier. For some, Syria has never been - and still isn’t - among the countries that affect America’s vital national security interests. For others such as Donald Trump’s Special Envoy James Jeffrey Syria is a pivotal country (to use a concept close to Zbigniew Brzezinski’s heart) from which Russia is preparing to overturn the global security order that the United States seeks to establish. Washington is therefore likely to increase its humanitarian aid to fend off the growing criticism towards its policy of attrition and strict application of sanctions under the Caesar Act.

Europe will stand by its position of "no reconstruction without a political transition", and remains vigilant regarding sanctions against Syrian officials, as well as the sharks and other leeches that surround the Assad family. The conflict is likely to last for several more years. Humanitarian aid serves as a substitute for diplomacy and as moral compensation but, if mismanaged, it may well turn into a self-defeating strategy.

The real question is not about the nature of the aid or the name given to it, but rather about providing the answer to the How. 

EU and UN bureaucracies are in endless discussions about whether to provide post-emergency aid, humanitarian-plus, early recovery, or resilience - getting us lost in semantics. These disputes overlook the real dilemma: how to reach the 80% of Syrians who need aid in an impartial, transparent, non-discriminatory and non-politicized manner, when we know that the delivery channels imposed by Assad are subject to conditions that run counter to these fundamental principles of humanitarian aid? 

The real question is not about the nature of the aid or the name given to it, but rather about providing the answer to the How, i.e. what channels should be used for aid to reach the population without exacerbating and entrenching the conflict?

Russia and the Damascus regime are engaged in a powerful propaganda campaign aimed at making people believe that Western countries - through their policy of sanctions and their refusal to finance reconstruction - are responsible for the misfortunes of the Syrian people. Some EU countries are sensitive to this argument, and Europe - despite being the largest donor of humanitarian aid - finds itself on the defensive.

Unfortunately, all indications suggest that as the conflict continues, the population’s plight will continue to deteriorate. Given this reality, Europe needs to adopt a strategy that would allow it to better demonstrate that its posture is appropriate, in order to have more influence on the situation, and help the population beyond humanitarian assistance.

It can do this, firstly through a public diplomacy effort, by reformulating its message - "no reconstruction without a political transition" - into a positive one, without changing its actual stance on the issue. To counter Russian and Syrian disinformation, Europe could, for example, formulate and publicly present a plan for reconstruction aid, over a given period of time. It could further announce that it can - and will - provide this aid to the Syrians for the reconstruction of their country, and show willingness to release these funds, if a credible political transition is initiated. This is not in any way a call for shifting red lines or changing the political conditions linked to reconstruction - as defined by Brussels - but merely for reversing the discourse to show that the one hindering the delivery of assistance and depriving Syrians of it is Assad himself. The data clearly demonstrates this reality.

In 2020, donor countries had pledged a total of $3.8 billion in humanitarian aid. However, the difficulties in administering this aid - which wasn’t subject to any conditions other than its delivery to its recipients without diversion - deterred some donors from delivering on their pledges, consequently leading to only 55% of the promised funds actually being delivered. At least two major non-governmental humanitarian organizations preferred to interrupt some of their programs because the conditions imposed by Damascus ran counter to their basic principle of "do no harm". Therefore, Europe must explain to the Syrian population that its deepest desire is to help, but that this is being made impossible by those who govern them.

Europe must explain to the Syrian population that its deepest desire is to help, but that this is being made impossible by those who govern them.

Announcing such a plan and specifying the conditions for its implementation would give more weight to Europe’s statements and would put it in a stronger position to play a political role. It would highlight its capacity and willingness to contribute financially, economically and technically to Syria’s recovery. Addressed to Russia in priority, this overture could be accompanied by an effort to revive multilateral consultations, in the form of some "contact group" involving all the countries concerned by the conflict.

More concretely, Europe could take better advantage of its preponderant role among the countries providing aid, by negotiating more immediate conditions with Russia (rather than with Assad, who sees nothing but danger and an obvious admission of weakness in any concession). It would be a matter of saying that Europe is ready to commit the funds that the Syrians actually need including a potential upgrade from humanitarian aid to preliminary development projects if only Europe could use other channels than those controlled by the regime in Damascus. The EU can instantly propose safe channels as it has worked in the past with a broad network of civil society groups on the ground that meet the criteria of impartiality and transparency.

Moreover European countries and the United States are gearing up for the next battle at the UN Security Council to secure the renewal of the resolution authorizing the delivery of aid to the four million Syrians across the Turkish border, but this matter does not concern the population under Assad’s control.

The message to Russia would be simple: Europe is willing to offer various forms of aid to Syrians on the condition that under no circumstances the money passes through Assad’s channels and his entourage. It is imperative to get out of the self-defeating dilemma Europe has locked itself in. 

 

Copyright: Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP

 

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