This week, European and Arab leaders, civil society organisations, NGO’s and international organisations are gathering in Brussels to discuss the future of Syria and the region.
During its previous editions, the ‘Syria conference’, co-hosted by the EU and the UN, over 15 billion euros was pledged to support Syrians, both in their country and in neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
I agree with those complaining that Europe is too much of a ‘payer’ and not enough of a ‘player’ to end the war. But a payer of life-saving humanitarian aid for millions of Syrians we are. Yet with no end to the war in sight - UNICEF saw 2018 as the deadliest yet for children in Syria - the Syrian population needs and deserves much more than money. In 2017, together with almost 100 parliamentary colleagues from across Europe, I called for the EU to leverage its role as the largest financial donor, to demand a stronger say in any negotiations on the political transition and future of Syria.
Two years later, the situation both on the ground and in European capitals has markedly changed. US troops are withdrawing, IS is confined to an ever shrinking territory and countries in the Gulf have started reaching out to the Assad regime. In Europe, talks about Syria continue to go hand in hand with concerns about migration, the return of Syrian refugees to their homes and tough questions over what to do with European jihadists.
It has unfortunately become increasingly unlikely that Assad is going anywhere in the short term. While we should be realistic, this acknowledgment cannot mean that European capitals now start warming up their relations with the current regime in Damascus. That would put all the cards into Assad’s hands; leveraging the return of Syrian refugees from Europe for reconstruction of the country that he destroyed.
The EU has largely been absent from any negotiations about Syria’s political future. However, as the donor with the largest financial means, we in Europe have an important bargaining chip that we cannot give away for populist, political and opportunistic reasons.
After years of violence and murder, the Syrian people have the right to rebuild their war-ravaged country. Regrettably, that is in Assad’s interest too, but Europe’s resources do also provide it with important leverage over his murderous regime. That we should continue unconditionally supporting Syrians at home and abroad is beyond doubt. Yet it is essential that funds for reconstruction are made conditional on concrete democratic reforms and accountability mechanisms.
Instead of slowly backing away from sanctions, inviting sanctioned Syrian officials to their capitals, sending high level delegations to meet with Syrian government officials and talking about the re-opening of embassies in Damascus, this is what the member states and High Representative Mogherini should be pushing for in the margins of this week’s Syria conference, during the foreign affairs council next week and at the highest level when EU leaders meet for the European council on March 22nd.
Only then can we really say we are talking about Syria’s future.