EU tries to revitalise UN-Syria talks at Brussels aid conference

European Union is making reconstruction funds conditional on political change as families of the missing call for accountability

Officials from Europe and the Middle East pose for an official photograph on March 14, 2019 at the third Brussels donor conference for Syria. AFP
Officials from Europe and the Middle East pose for an official photograph on March 14, 2019 at the third Brussels donor conference for Syria. AFP

The European Union called for a swift resumption of UN-led peace talks on Syria as a condition for investment in rebuilding the country, as members held the third edition of an aid pledging conference in Brussels that coincides with the eighth anniversary of the beginning of the Syrian conflict.

Making reconstruction funds conditional on a political process “could be a strong incentive for the political parties to engage seriously and constructively under the UN leadership in a way that is fully Syrian-owned to turn the page to this conflict,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in a response to a question by The National.

“We have had recently a discussion with foreign ministers to see where we are on this point and I was pleased to see that all 28 member states reconfirmed our unified position.”

If the UN-brokered political transition is successful then the EU "will be happy to support Syrians not only on humanitarian aid but on reconstruction”, Ms Mogherini said as she arrived at the Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region conference on Wednesday.

UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen said he was working on setting up a constitutional committee and that transition towards the political process would require collaboration from both Syrian sides and the international community.

“My top priority is to engage the Syrian government and the opposition and to see if we can develop some commonalities,” he said. On the constitutional committee, whose members are still being appointed, he said: “We don’t have a date but believe we are making progress."

His predecessor, Staffan de Mistura, spent a year trying to form the constitutional committee before stepping down in December. Mr Pedersen said he wanted to begin a new sustained dialogue with the government and opposition, aimed at “building trust and confidence”.

Representatives of more than 300 organisations working in Syria and in the region also gathered in Brussels for the Days of Dialogue sessions that began on Tuesday to discuss issues affecting the Syrian people.

According to a report commissioned by the EU, the priority for 52 per cent of Syrians is finding the more 80,000 people who have gone missing.

Kathryne Bomberger, director general of the International Commission on Missing Persons, told The National this was “a very real issue” for many Syrian families.

“The number is huge,” she said. “The majority of the missing are men, meaning the majority of those left behind are women.”

The government of Bashar Al Assad has so far issued death certificates for about 8,000 people – 10 per cent of the total number of missing. Relatives who do not have one face practical and legal challenges, including not being able to register property in their names.

However, the death certificates did not provide closure to the families who received them as they gave no details of what had happened their loved ones.

Syrian human rights lawyer Noura Ghazi Safadi saw her father detained nine times before the same thing happened to her fiance. Bassel Khartabil was arrested in 2012, about two weeks before their planned wedding. The couple became known as the “bride and the groom of the revolution” when they exchanged their vows in prison.

Mr Khartabil was later transferred to an unknown location and never seen again. The government told Ms Ghazi Safadi he had been executed.

“There are hundreds and thousands of Syrians who lost their loved ones because of detention and disappearance,” she told the international community on Wednesday.

“As families of the victims, we hope you will raise your voices to demand justice.”

As Mr Al Assad tightens his grip on the country, withholding much-needed capital for reconstruction is perhaps the last bargaining chip the EU – Syria’s biggest humanitarian donor – has left to play to trigger a political process.

The money pledged on Thursday will be allocated to humanitarian aid, but organisations operating inside Syria are left to strike a fine balance between what they can and cannot do.

The Syria Recovery Trust Fund, which includes a number of European nations, was launched by the Group of Friends of the Syrian People in 2013 when the prospect of political change seemed more likely.

The SRTF does not recognise the Assad government as legitimate and operates within the shrinking rebel-held pockets. But navigating complex war-related international sanctions makes delivering assistance difficult.

“The SRTF complies with UN, EU, US and other relevant sanctions; we have to go through very long legal process to get waivers and that can take as much as eight or nine months for even a small equipment,” its director general, Hani Khabbaz, told The National.

Those involved with the Syrian humanitarian effort say that the requirements associated with due diligence are complex, often require costly legal analysis, and impede the delivery of aid, a UN study found.

At the same time, long-term reconstruction is premature and not a viable economic alternative. “Without resolving the reasons for which the conflict started, putting money for reconstruction is a wasted investment,” Mr Khabbaz said.

“For a political process to succeed you need to have justice, because without justice you don’t have peace and without peace you can’t have reconstruction.”

Published: March 14, 2019 05:14 PM


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