EU urges ‘not to give up on Syria’ amid Russia’s war on Ukraine

High Representative Josep Borrell at the sixth 'Brussels Conference on Supporting the future of Syria and the region'. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

The Syrian humanitarian crisis remains among the EU’s top priorities, the bloc’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, said at the sixth pledging conference for the war-torn Middle-Eastern country in Brussels on Tuesday (10 May).

“The world’s public opinion seems not to be able to deal with more than one crisis at a time. Now, there is Ukraine on the headlines, but do not give up on Syria,” Borrell told reporters after the meeting.

He also acknowledged “a certain fatigue” after 11 years of conflict, “but it remains on our minds.”

The European Commission has pledged €1.56 billion for Syria for 2022 and promised the same amount for next year.

The EU is resistant to pouring money into the reconstruction of the country while the Assad regime is still in power, Borrell said.

“If you go and spend money reconstructing Syria, it is going to support the Syrian regime. We want to support the Syrian people,” the EU’s chief diplomat asserted, specifying that a reconstruction supported by EU funds will happen when “a genuine and comprehensive political transition in Syria will be underway”.  

While the EU currently does not consider the ‘normalisation’ of relations with Assad possible, Borrell did not exclude such a possibility in the future, if the Syrian president creates the conditions for such a dialogue.

“We will not relax our sanctions to maintain pressure on the Assad regime nor normalise relations before people will be safe to go back home,” he said.

At the conference on Tuesday, Borrell reaffirmed the EU’s support for the 2254 UN resolution on Syria, approved in 2015, where the international community asked for a ceasefire and the negotiation of a political solution that respects the sovereignty of the country. 

Russia excluded

Despite being a crucial actor in Syria, Russia was excluded from the international donors’ meeting for the region.

“We are inviting those partners who have a genuine, real interest to contribute to peace in the world,” Borrell explained.

With the exclusion of Russia, he said the EU is “sending a clear message of rejection of the Russian military aggression against Ukraine.”

For the first time, the conference was not co-hosted by the United Nations, due to Russia’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

On Tuesday, the main intelligence department of the Ukrainian Defence Ministry accused Russian troops of transporting crops stolen from Ukraine to Russian territory, to Crimea and to dry cargo ships in the Mediterranean Sea, from where they will most likely be transported to Syria.

“We have heard those as well, we’ve not confirmed them, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that is what is happening,” US Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told reporters in Brussels.

Humanitarian crisis 

At the moment, 90% of Syrians live in poverty and 60% suffer from food insecurity, aggravated by the war in Ukraine due to skyrocketing prices and complications with food imports.

According to UN data, 14.6 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance, while up to 20 million people in the surrounding region are in need because of the Syrian crisis.

Neighbouring countries – Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq – called on the international community to step up humanitarian funds as they increasingly struggle to cover the needs of refugees.

Meanwhile, Lebanon and Turkey are also pushing to increase voluntary returns in an effort to lighten the burden on their economy and society.

Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan unveiled a scheme for the voluntary return of around one million Syrian refugees back to their country.

Addressing the conference, Lebanese foreign affairs minister Abdallah Bou Habib said “the economic and security situation in Syria is far better than in Lebanon” and suggested increasing “assistance to Syrians in Syria.”

Lebanon is hosting 1.5 million Syrians and almost half a million Palestinians, who account for one-third of the population.

“Lebanon in the past was able to negotiate the return of hundreds of thousands of Syrians to their country to see them come back to Lebanon to get monthly allowances from donor organisations,” Bou Habib said, adding that “remittances are a large source of foreign exchange for the Syrian regime.”

[Edited by Alexandra Brzozowski/Nathalie Weatherald]

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