Syria conference: Patience runs out for symbolic politics

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini (L) and other foreign ministers during a press briefing at the 'supporting the future of Syria and the region conference' in Brussels, Belgium, 05 April 2017. [Olivier Hoslet/ EPA]

Representatives from 70 countries and organisations at the Brussels Syria donor conference called for lessons to be learned from a chemical weapons attack that left scores dead. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Today (5 April) marked the start of the Supporting the future of Syria and the Region conference, co-hosted by the European Union, United Kingdom, Germany, Norway, Kuwait, Qatar and the United States.

It was started by a minute’s silence, in which the victims of a recent attack in a Syrian town were remembered, as well as the over 300,000 deaths that have been caused during the six years of conflict.

But world leaders have continued to attract criticism for their alleged inaction on the Syrian crisis.

The main powers, as usual, blamed each other for the poison gas attack, reportedly carried out yesterday (4 April).

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The US held Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responsible but the Syrian army denied the allegations. President Donald Trump denounced the attack but also found time to blame his predecessor.

Russia, however, insisted that the Syrian airforce had struck a rebel-held “terrorist warehouse”. A United Nations independent committee concluded in an investigation into March’s battle for Aleppo that there was no evidence of rebels using poison gas.

Ever since the beginning of Russia’s intervention in Syria, Vladimir Putin has pursued three main objectives: keep Assad in power, increase Moscow’s role in the region and be recognised by the Americans as a key player in resolving international conflicts.

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Russia also wants to improve its credibility as a Middle East actor again, which has taken a hit in recent times, as well as ensuring the Assad regime does not use internationally-banned chemical weapons.

European powers have, instead, positioned themselves against the Syrian president.

On Monday, EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg agreed that there can be “no lasting peace in Syria under the current regime”. Germany’s foreign affairs chief, Sigmar Gabriel (SPD), warned the US that the Syria issue should not be subordinated into merely fighting terror group Islamic State, rather it should be about removing “dictator” Assad in punishment for his crimes.

His British counterpart, Boris Johnson, said at the beginning of the conference that “you cannot go on with a regime that’s willing to use illegal weapons against its own people, a regime that’s killed hundreds of thousands of its own people”. He also added that a political process is now needed in order to remove Assad and to give the people of Syria “a chance”.

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The EU unveiled an ambitious plan Tuesday (14 March) to support the reconstruction of war-torn Syria, calling it a “dividend” to encourage warring parties to reach a peace deal.

EU High Representative Federica Mogherini said at the beginning of the meeting that “I hope that this political solution can be found or at least started so that we can all offer a dignified present and future for all Syrians inside and outside of Syria.”

She also talked about financial aid. The UN has warned for some time that money rarely reaches those who need it and massive bottlenecks have formed in Syria’s neighbouring countries, where five million refugees have currently fled. A further $4.6 billion are needed to help Syrians and the region.

Today’s conference in the Belgian capital follows last year’s edition in London, where €10bn was earmarked to help Syria.

The German government is one of the biggest donors and has since 2012 provided over €2.8bn. More than €1.3bn of that came from the ministry for economic cooperation and development.

Donations will indeed help fight the impact of the war but will not help put an end to it. The question remains: what role can Europe play globally in contributing to bringing the conflict to an end.

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