Hardly any Syrians at Syria donor conference

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Christos Stylianides (centre), European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, at the Syria conference. Brussels, 5 April. [European Commission]

The EU needs to live up to its own commitments on national ownership and inclusivity to support the future of Syria, writes Alexandra Saieh.

Alexandra Saieh is Syria Crisis Response Policy and Campaigns Advisor at Oxfam.

The international community met in Brussels this week to discuss Supporting the future of Syria and the region. The conference has passed with some fanfare and limited impact. It felt divorced from the reality on the ground, particularly as it opened to news of another horrifying chemical attack and images of children choking for air in Idlib.

To add to this, those who are most affected by the conflict were not given the room they deserve to voice their needs and aspirations: the Syrians. Oxfam advocated strongly with various actors, including EU institutions and some of the conference co-chairs for the effective inclusion of Syrian organisations and civil society representatives. Oxfam also gave up a seat at the table of the ministerial meeting in favour of a Syrian representative.

How is it possible not to have their voices front and centre when they deliver the bulk of aid in Syria when their workers are putting their lives on the line to help their communities?

On April 4, barely 10 Syrians were present in the room as European, other Western governments, and Gulf States discussed humanitarian priorities inside Syria. One Syrian doctor stood up and started shaking from grief as he told participants about a friend who was killed in Idlib that morning. The following day, no Syrians at all were present at the ministerial plenary where world powers and Syria’s neighbours came together.

This was all the more disappointing because the EU’s new Syria strategy approved just the day before by the 28 member states recognises the importance of an increasingly threatened Syrian civil society for the future of Syria. Indeed, national ownership and inclusivity are mentioned as key features of the EU approach to support the future of Syria.

On the substance of the conference, it simply and sadly fell short. It is far from clear that the necessary funds have been mobilised to help those affected by the crisis inside Syria as well as refugees in the region. Last year’s London conference represented a breakthrough– with many rich countries pledging multi-year funding commitment to ensure refugees have access to education, food, and decent work opportunities. Countries like Jordan and Lebanon took important steps to make legal work opportunities more accessible to millions of refugees and make it easier for them to obtain residency permits until they can safely return to their homes.

Last year, discussions focused on supporting refugees live safely in countries hosting them or resettling them in rich countries abroad. This year, we heard for the first time talk of returning people to Syria, a dangerous shift that could put millions of people at risk.

Finally, discussions around the reconstruction of Syria showed to be painfully premature. It’s no doubt that Syria will need massive support for reconstruction after years of deadly clashes and heavy bombardment that have killed hundreds of thousands of people and destroyed hospitals and schools. However, a move by the international community for reconstruction assistance risks doing more harm than good in absence of a political solution that ensures those in control have respect for human rights and allow existence of an independent civil society that can hold the state to account.

Many refugees in Jordan and Lebanon I’ve met over the years have told me they want to go back to their homes in Syria, but even with reconstruction, that won’t happen if the current status quo continues. For future international meetings on Syria to be meaningful, world leaders must ensure Syrian civil society are at the table, actions are taken to hold those responsible for the violence to account, and an inclusive and meaningful political process is underway.