After a decade of impunity in Syria, the EU needs to take a fresh approach

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

In the face of a seemingly intractable conflict in Syria the EU and international community to change their approach, writes Imogen Sudbery. [Shutterstock/Tomas Davidov]

In the face of a seemingly intractable conflict in Syria the EU and international community to change their approach, writes Imogen Sudbery.

Imogen Sudbery is Director of Policy & Advocacy, Europe at the International Rescue Committee

Last week, a hospital run by the International Rescue Committee’s partner organisation SAMS in Al Atareb – a suburb of Aleppo in northwest Syria – was severely damaged after being struck by rockets. Seven people, including children, were killed. At least 16 more, of which five are health staff, were injured during the blast.

Such attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure have been a hallmark of the decade of conflict in Syria. This was the fifth attack on a healthcare facility in 2021. There have been 118 since January 2019. Yet, while hospitals are protected from attack under international law, to date, no one has been held to account for these flagrant violations.

Impunity is now the norm after 10 years of conflict in Syria and civilians have borne the brunt of this horrific war which has left much of the country in a state of acute humanitarian emergency. Despite having largely dropped off the news agenda, Syrians are now worse off than at any point in the previous decade. Some 90% are trapped in poverty, 13 million need humanitarian assistance, and a record 60% of the population is food insecure. The conflict has forced half of all Syrians from their homes – some twice, five, or even twenty times according to surveys conducted by the IRC.

Despite eight rounds of UN-led negotiations, the international community’s efforts have failed to bring the conflict any closer to a peaceful resolution. Civilians and displaced people are caught in the firing line, as evidenced by the hospital attack last Sunday.

However, the world has a chance to address the humanitarian crisis, with the fifth Brussels Conference on supporting the future of Syria and the region – a major annual event intended to mobilise financial support, but should also become a forum to engage in robust humanitarian diplomacy.

After a decade of conflict, the European Union needs to throw its full weight behind establishing a fresh approach to the conflict that puts humanitarian considerations and civilian protection front and centre. Here’s how.

Invest in Syria and the region

Over the past 10 years, the EU has been one of the main drivers of the coordinated donor response to the Syria crisis. Along with its member states, it has also been the largest provider of aid, providing more than €24 billion to help people affected by the war. However, despite these efforts, the response remains desperately underfunded with the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan for Syria falling more than 40% short of its target in 2020. Today, global donors should show solidarity with the people of Syria – not only by making pledges to plug this shortfall, but by committing to increased flexible, multi-year funding that covers the needs of the population both in the short and long-term.

Given the continued horrific and targeted attacks on Syria’s healthcare facilities, this sector needs particular attention. International donors should plan specific investments in programmes that repair, restore and rebuild Syria’s shattered health facilities, like the one at Al Atareb. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it even more critical to ensure the continuity of healthcare, and strengthen these facilities so they are able to withstand future shocks.

Over six million people have fled beyond Syria’s borders. Its neighbours, who have generously hosted refugees for 10 years, are buckling under the strain as they now also confront COVID-19 and economic crises. At previous Brussels Conferences leaders have committed to implement potentially game-changing new frameworks designed to support host countries and help refugees live more dignified lives, through a combination of funding support and policy change. Yet, progress on these developments has been slow.

If this conference is to be more than a talking shop, the EU needs to ensure that international donors, host governments and operational actors are delivering on their commitments. There must be more opportunities for frank dialogue, and concrete outcomes.

Push for unfettered humanitarian access

Besides being a key pledging moment, the Brussels Conference is an important opportunity for world leaders to rally support for increasing humanitarian access and the renewal of a critical UN Security Council Resolution which allows the UN to deliver life-saving aid cross border into Syria.

Last year, cross-border aid reached 2.4 million Syrians every month. There is currently no viable alternative for meeting the needs of people in northwest Syria.

However, in early 2020, two crossings the UN primarily used to bring in health supplies were shuttered. And when the authorisation for the sole remaining border crossing, Bab al Hawa, expires this July, the Security Council will face a monumental decision.

By working closely with EU members and like-minded states sitting in the UN Security Council, the EU should support a unified position that puts the needs and protection of Syrians at the centre of their decisions, ensuring this crossing remains authorised for UN use to deliver aid in a timely and dignified manner.

Hold perpetrators of war crimes to account

Despite growing evidence and international recognition of the widespread – and sometimes deliberate – nature of attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure in Syria, the international community has so far failed to hold those responsible to account. A UN-established Board of Inquiry was set up, but was mandated to examine only a limited number of incidents in northwest Syria and failed to attribute responsibility publicly.

The EU and its member states should explore and make use of existing national and international laws to hold perpetrators to account. The recent judgment issued by the court of Koblenz, in Germany, is an example of how EU member states can bring those who violate international humanitarian law (IHL) and commit crimes against humanity in Syria to justice.

The EU should bolster the mandate of its Special Representative for Human Rights, making sure that IHL considerations are at the heart of all of its work. It should also offer political backing and operational support to UN-led accountability initiatives, and other actions designed to gather evidence of violations of these international laws.

After 10 years of war, it’s time for the EU to show fresh resolve on Syria. It should ramp up its response and apply political pressure to ensure that the next decade does not repeat the mistakes of the last. If it fails to do so, it risks setting a dangerous precedent in which the brutality and lawlessness of the war in Syria becomes the norm – not the exception – for conflict around the world.

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