EU Syria aid manager: ‘We started two years too late’

Nadim Karkutli denies charges the EU did 'too little', but conceeds they - and others - started 'too late' on the refugee crisis. [Matt Tempest/Flickr]

The manager of the EU’s Trust Fund for Syria, Nadim Karkutli, told euractiv.com in an exclusive interview at this year’s AidEx conference that the fund – helping the five million refugees in neighbouring countries – probably should have started in 2012.

But he is still hopeful for the plight of those refugees – even though it takes on average 17 years to return a refugee to their home country.

Nadim Karkutli is the Manager of the EU Trust Fund for Syria, in the European Commission’s DG for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations.

Karkutli spoke to EURACTIV’s Matthew Tempest.

Can you explain just what the EU Trust Fund for Syria is? 

It was set up in 2014. It is a pooled fund, on a regional scale, for the countries hosting refugees around Syria, that includes EU budget funds from several sources and instruments that otherwise would have to go separately. Here, they are centralized and pooled. There are contributions from 22 EU member states in the [total] amount of more than €70 million, and also co-financing from Turkey – so we have 23 donors, plus the European Union.

We will reach about 1bn [euros] in donations by the end of this year, which has been the target President Juncker set last September, following the onset of the refugee flows to Europe, the EU stepped up its response to the plight of the refugees in the countries where they are.

As I said earlier here in the panel, we realized, early on, that the humanitarian funding, and the humanitarian response – which on the European side was led by DG ECHO, both financially and in terms of mandate, was not sufficient anymore to cope with the huge, 5 million refugees, living, 80-90% of them, in cities and towns in the neighbouring countries, destabilizing these countries. Poverty, lack of access to education and social services. This required much larger funding, and also a development perspective, which this Fund has provided, without taking away from the other precious development assistance we have for these countries for their normal country-specific developments. Plugging a gap, putting a lot of money in the right place and trying to have an impact.

Some have said the EU’s response has been ‘too little, too late’. Presumably, you disagree with that?

I think that for the period of early 2015, when indeed (not only the EU but international donors, EU member states) had perhaps suffered from some kind of donor fatigue after three years of that crisis going on. WFP [World Food Programme] had to cut its monthly food voucher amounts and rations to refugees and the situation had become more and more untenable for families, for young people, in the neighbouring countries, in that sense, yes.

Today, I think we’ve learnt that lesson, and the EU has put forward in total since 2011 more than €7 billion – 3 billion pledged alone at the London conference this year on supporting Syria and the region, which was co-hosted by Germany, the UN, and Norway, and showed that the international community had understood that much more needs to be done.

‘Too little, too late?’ ‘Too little”, I would say ‘no’. ‘Too late’? It’s never too late to help people who live in very very difficult conditions, and if children can’t go to school I think it’s never too late to help them.

We probably should have done what we do today already from 2012 on, but that’s the way it is. And today, I think we’re on the right track.

The topic of today’s panel at AidEx was ‘protracted crises’. At what point does a crisis become a ‘protracted’ crisis, because Syria has now been going on since 2011, five years at least…

As my colleague on the panel from the International Committee of the Red Cross rightly said, if we understand crisis and political conflict, in the majority of cases, we’ve seen that average duration of civil wars is many, many years.

The average years of ‘displacement before return’ of a refugee or an IDP [internally displaced person] is 17 years.

And this data is more and more available. Therefore we have to accept that, in the case of natural disasters, yes, the humanitarian response is quick and can restore normality to a large extent within a very short period of time, and get people back in their houses and children back into school.

But in the case of wars, civil wars, political crises, then ‘protracted’ is whatever you call it – five years, eight years, 10 years, 20 years. It depends. ‘Protracted’ I think is anything more than a couple of months or a year or two, when really you have the situation of large populations that need, like any other population, regular access to social services. And they need a place to live, and a school for their children, and a job. All of this not being available for many years, that is what we’re dealing with. And whether it’s five, 10 or 20 years, that is ‘protracted’ in the sense that it is continuing, it’s recurring, and we need to have development and humanitarian actors working together.

As head of the Syria unit, is there anything that gives you optimism that the Syria conflict could be coming to an end? 

Well, it has two elements. If we are very frank, we must understand that in the longer term, whatever assistance we can provide to small economies like Lebanon and Jordan, who are already a little unstable politically – at least in Lebanon – and socially fractured, that such countries cannot sustain hosting a population that is equal to 25% or 30% of its own [population] for years and years to come.

The only solution is of course that the war ends in Syria. That it ends through a transition into a political system that will allow Syrians to come back to the country without fear of being persecuted or imprisoned, and with the hope of rebuilding their country. So do I have hope for that? I think it would be impermissible to lose hope in such situations. We must never lose hope.

But as a political analyst or somebody who looks at this from the outside, it looks, of course, not very hopeful at this point.

So I think the job at this point is to work towards a political solution in Syria, an end to the war, and at the same time help sustain the displaced populations in the neighbouring countries as much as we can. But this is nothing you can do forever, perhaps for another two, three or four years at max.

EU adds its voice condemning attack on Syria humanitarian convoy

The EU has added its voice to the international row over the deadly attack on a humanitarian convoy near Aleppo on Monday (19 September), but – unlike the USA – it did not point its finger at Russia.

And finally, the obvious question – the election last week of Donald Trump, could that be a game-changer in Syria because of Trump’s ‘close friendship’ with Putin?

I’m not sure whether Mr. Trump is befriended with Mr. Putin – I understand they haven’t met so far.

And it’s obviously beyond both my mandate and my pay grade to make any speculations on this on behalf of the EU.

But if you ask me personally, there are, I think, justified expectations that Iran, for example, may consider reducing it’s very strong military engagement in Syria in support of the regime if it would help to avoid the US leaving the Iran nuclear deal.

Is it a jigsaw puzzle?

It’s a jigsaw puzzle. So that is an element where, for example, Mr. Trump’s declared intention and that of the GOP [Republicans] to leave that agreement with Iran, could, perhaps, have a positive impact the escalation, or reduce the escalation in Syria.

As regards Russia, I think that is something that will develop, and we might see a lot of surprises on the way.

AidEx opens in Brussels, with ‘localisation’ top of the agenda

AidEx, the second-biggest event in the development calendar in Brussels, opens today (16 November), for 48 hours, in which the international aid community, NGOs, professionals come together to share experiences and expertise.

Further Reading

The Brief: Does the EU actually care about Syria?

The European Union slapped sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea. Why isn’t it doing the same to Moscow for breaking international law in Syria?

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