Brussels hosted the seventh Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region on 14 and 15 June. Attended by various European nations, Syria’s neighbours, and delegates from the UN and other international organisations, the conference was primarily intended to galvanise financial, humanitarian and political aid, providing support to countries that host Syrian refugees.
The Brussels conference, held at the European Parliament headquarters, announced an additional aid package of $10.3 billion to Syrians suffering from hunger, poverty, and the terrors of war in their homeland. The European Union also pledged to furnish an initial sum of $600 million in 2024, with a commitment to augment the allocation in the ensuing months, along with the addition of supplementary contributions.
The conference was held amid a series of field and political developments in the Syrian arena. The most prominent of these are the reverberations of the devastating earthquake that struck northern Syria on 6 February, causing colossal losses in terms of both lives and infrastructure.
The UN estimated that the total damages and losses inflicted by the earthquake in Syria are approaching a staggering $9 billion. Other estimates reported that recovery efforts in the affected areas require around $15 billion of funding.
On 13 May, Amnesty International called upon the UN to continue providing aid through the border crossings between Syria and neighbouring countries, which constitute a lifeline for millions of people affected by the earthquake and are crucial for their survival.
The Brussels conference also coincided with renewed popular protests in Syria, sparked by a decline in economic indicators, deteriorating living conditions, and a persistent devaluation of the local currency. Three UN organisations have described the needs in Syria as “enormous”, stating that only one-tenth of the required funding has been secured thus far for 2023 projects aimed at assisting Syrians in their country and those who have sought refuge in neighbouring regions.
Against this backdrop, the Brussels summit was convened to provide support for Syria despite the Western powers’ hardline stance on the Syrian regime.
While the US Treasury Department announced a new set of sanctions related to Syria in late May, targeting the Al-Fadel and Al-Adham exchange companies, the European Union said on the eve of the conference that its policy towards the Syrian regime will not change until a political solution to the crisis is reached.
On 16 June, Josep Borrell, the high representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, announced that the European Union “must maintain, too, our commitment to justice and accountability for the crimes committed over what is now more than a decade of conflict… The EU is already considering how it can support a new mechanism that, we hope, will be created by the UN to discover the fate and the whereabouts of those missing, and to support victims’ families.”
Borrell added: “Let me be clear: the conditions are not in place for the European Union to change its policy on Syria, Member States are united on that. It will maintain and has recently actually intensified its targeting by sanctions of the Syrian regime.”
Since the outbreak of the Syrian Revolution in 2011, Western powers have levied sanctions on individuals and entities affiliated with the Syrian regime, in addition to the declaration by Washington and European capitals of efforts to normalise relations led by some countries with the Syrian regime.
Moscow had taken the lead in endeavours to normalise the relationship between Ankara and Damascus, and Arab-Syrian relations have recently seen notable improvements, as evidenced by Syria’s reinstatement as a member of the Arab League, in addition to the advancement of Damascus’ ties with its Arab neighbours, much to the chagrin of Western powers.
Despite the relative success Europe achieved in addressing the humanitarian crisis in Syria, the conference faces several challenges. Foremost among these is the deterioration of Syrian conditions at home and abroad.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said over 14 million Syrians have fled their homes since 2011, with approximately 6.8 million still displaced in Syria, where almost the entire population lives below the poverty line. Additionally, there are some 5.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. The UNHCR reported that the Syrian war has resulted in 500,000 deaths, and has displaced millions of individuals, both internally and as refugees.
The second challenge facing the conference is the escalation of hardline Western positions towards the Syrian regime, as they endeavour to isolate and exert pressure on the Assad government. This is manifested in their continued support of the experiment of the autonomous administration, led by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in the regions east of the Euphrates, which could contribute to perpetuating the idea of a divided country, or at the very least reinforce the notion of Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria, thereby weakening the centralisation of the Syrian state.
Western countries, including Germany, France, and the UK, reject any rapprochement with Bashar Al-Assad. In a joint statement issued last March, the three countries, along with Washington, declared that they would neither normalise relations with the Al-Assad regime nor lift the sanctions imposed upon it. The statement accused the Syrian regime of perpetrating crimes against its own people and allowing terrorists to threaten regional security.
The German Special Envoy to Syria Stefan Schneck said in mid-May that sanctions against the Al-Assad regime remain in place, and that Germany has not normalised relations with Damascus due to its policy of supporting illicit drug trafficking in the region.
Other challenges facing the Brussels conference include the continuing violence and counter-violence in Syria between the regime and its opponents, in addition to the proliferation of armed and terrorist groups that have recently resumed their activities.
Together, these challenges pose a significant obstacle in the way of any efforts to assist Syria. Ongoing local protests that have arisen in response to dire economic conditions may further distract attention away from addressing these challenges, and instead focus efforts on internal concerns.
Hence, while the Brussels conference is crucial for Syria, it is unlikely that it will put the brakes on the ongoing economic, political, and humanitarian deterioration. This is due to the continuing conflict between the regime and its opponents, as well as among various terrorist groups and theirs. In addition, the divergent visions and interests of international and regional powers involved in the Syrian crisis, each with its own unique and narrow agenda, have hindered the settlement of the Syrian crisis and prevented the realisation of a radical solution.
The Syrian conflict has exhausted both Syrians and the region, but a comprehensive solution to the crisis remains elusive.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 22 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly