As we speak, representatives of more than 85 countries meet in Brussels to attend the second - ministerial - day of the Syria conference, co-hosted by the EU and the United Nations. In the run-up to today, one message in particular was hard to miss: ‘the EU is the largest humanitarian donor for Syria.’ High Representative Federica Mogherini has not wasted any opportunity to reiterate this feat.
With the Syrian conflict in its eight year, it is essential that humanitarian support is provided to the millions of Syrians still caught up in the conflict. Unfortunately, funding is drying up and is desperately needed for people’s basic needs. Yet there seems to be a disconnect between messages such as ‘the EU is doing its job in Syria’ and the humanitarian disaster unfolding before our very eyes. Nearly half a million people have lost their lives. UN resolutions are blocked. Ceasefires violated. Assad, supported by Russia and Iran continues ruthless bombardments of children, hospitals and aid workers. Islamist terror groups are not defeated. The use of chemical weapons, again and again, is a direct affront to the values and principles that underpin international relations.
In this dire situation, being the biggest donor, or having been supportive of Syria the longest should not be an accomplishment to be proud of. We can only be proud when the people of Syria find long term peace, an end to the violence and bloodshed, negotiated under UN auspices.
Does this conclusion render the Syria Conference meaningless? No. Millions of Syrians remain dependent on humanitarian aid to simply survive. We cannot let the crisis in Syria disappear from the top of our agendas and close cooperation with NGO’s and civil society organisations is vital. Not only when it comes to the delivery of aid, but in all issues concerning Syria and its future.
But the EU can and should do more. I for one have three recommendations:
1. Be at the table in any negotiations on the political transition and future of Syria.
We keep hearing that ‘there is no military solution to the crisis in Syria’ (LINK/SOURCE). Yet Assad, Putin’s Russia, Tehran and Turkey are creating the devastating facts on the ground. The EU has become marginalised in negotiations, be they on ceasefires or on Syria’s future. We must avoid statements like this from becoming a carte blanche for the status quo.
Instead, the EU should leverage its role as the largest humanitarian donor for Syria to force a real role in any negotiations on the political transition and future of Syria.
In Syria, prisons are compared to slaughterhouses, children choke to death on chlorine, sarin and mustardgas and videos of summary executions are broadcast globally. Accountability for these crimes should be one of the EU’s main priorities.
The EU should play a leading role to make sure that those responsible for these heinous crimes must and will be held to account. To do so, it should at least:
- Step up its funding to international mechanisms and organisations that document and collect evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide
- Push for the re-establishment of the mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism that was established to attribute responsibility for chemical weapons attacks in Syria, but was blocked by Russia last November;
- Encourage EU member states to make sure the most serious crimes against international law are an offense under their national laws or that they prosecute such crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction;
- With Russia blocking a referral to the ICC; consider the setting up of a special tribunal to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed in Syria.
3. Sanctions against Russia and Iran
The EU imposed targeted measures against Assad and his regime in 2011. Yet the military and political support provided Russia and Iran also directly contribute to the relentless bombings and attacks against the Syrian population.
The EU should therefore not wait another second to impose targeted sanctions against Russian and Iranian officials responsible for these violations. Countries blocking such measures need to be called out publicly.
These proposals should be an incentive for the EU to move beyond its role as the largest humanitarian donor for Syria. The Syria conference today is an opportunity to break through the current stalemate. We can and should do more. An EU strategy for Syria - one that goes beyond statements – is urgently needed to play a more effective role towards achieving peace, justice and accountability for the Syrian people.