Destructed streets

Nine years of war - Who is helping the Syrians?

Twelve million Syrians need humanitarian aid every day, a sombre figure that conceals much suffering and high costs. Europe bears 80% of those costs. The financial aid planned for 2020/2021 is not enough. The EU is mobilising donations and counting on civil society. But to stop the suffering, Brussels must take a stronger stance politically.


Even if the corona crisis is drawing everyone’s attention to Germany and the situation in the EU, many crises in Europe’s immediate neighbourhood still have the potential to become dangerous – as in Syria, where the figures attesting to the suffering are overwhelming: of the 23 million Syrians who lived in their homeland before the outbreak of the war in 2011, 12 million need humanitarian aid daily.  Moreover, 6 million are displaced within the country and 6 million have fled abroad. Of the 6 million who have fled, 5 million are in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and northern Iraq, where they need help. Altogether, 1.1 million Syrians live in EU member states, 800,000 of whom reside in Germany.

The EU and its member states have provided €20 billion in emergency humanitarian aid alone over the last nine years. The EU is by far the most important donor, and Brussels bore 80% of the costs in 2019. The health, social and economic situation of Syrians in the Middle East continues to deteriorate, and hunger and poverty are rampant. The United Nations estimates that at least €10 billion will be needed in 2020/2021 as a result. To raise funds, an international ministerial conference (Syria Brussels IV Conference) pledged €6,9 billion on 30 June, of which the EU, together with the member states, is contributing €5.7 billion. Donor generosity remains high – yet the amount is still more than €1 billion below last year’s pledges. It is therefore expected that further funds will be needed over the coming months in view of increasing poverty, suffering and costs stemming from Covid-19.

Emergency aid for the Syrians: EU pays 80%, Russia 0.3%

To add another frightening number: The World Bank estimates that rebuilding Syria will cost at least €400 billion. This is money that the main warring parties – the Assad regime, Islamist militias, Russia, Iran and Turkey – do not want to or cannot invest. By way of comparison, Russia, through its annual financial contribution to the United Nations budget, bears only 0.3% of the cost of providing humanitarian aid to the Syrians. The Assad clan, which is responsible for 85% of the more than 400,000 Syrians killed, publicly disputes that millions of euros have been distributed among family members.

With so much cynicism, it seems sad that the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and European Commission Vice-President Josep Borrell felt compelled to say at the opening of the Syria Brussels 4 Conference that “Europe has not forgotten Syria and the Syrian people”.

Syrian civil society as a credible partner

As the EU considers itself “an advocate for the Syrians”, credibility is crucial. In mobilising financial and technical assistance to alleviate humanitarian needs, Brussels is delivering on its promise – as it is by promoting Syrian civil societies both at home and abroad.

The European Commission regularly gives the floor to representatives of Syrian civil society at ministerial conferences and organises “days of dialogue” between Syrian civil society organisations and their European counterparts. War, conflict, displacement and expulsion have contributed to the fact that Syrians, who have grown up experiencing the Assad dictatorship and its secret police, have courageously founded hundreds of NGOs and alternative political movements (including a pleasingly large number of secular and pluralistic organisations in which many women are participating) both in the country and abroad. The EU is using many of these civil society organisations to channel aid to those in need on site.

In their 10-point catalogue of demands presented to the Brussels Ministerial Conference, the representatives of Syrian civil society asked, among other things, for more intensive interaction with European policy-makers, including future-proof planning of their technical and financial resources. European actors are being called upon to help the diverse Syrian NGOs network better with one another, since the 23 million Syrians live in seven different realities: (1) 9 million Syrians under the Assad regime; (2) 3 million in Idlib under Islamist militias; (3) 2 million in the North, partly under Turkish occupation; (4) 3 million in parts of North-East Syria under the rule of Kurdish militias; (5) 5 million as refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Northern Iraq; (6) 1.1 million in EU member states; (7) several hundred thousand in the wider diaspora. 

Investigation, prosecution and punishment of war crimes

In reality, war crimes, especially those committed by the Assad regime and the so-called “Islamic State”, should be tried before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Since this is unlikely to happen anytime soon, some NGOs and national courts in EU member states are working to investigate, prosecute and punish war crimes. A German criminal court in Koblenz is currently conducting what can be considered a model trial based on the principles of international law (Weltrechtsprinzip). In the case, two Syrians who came to Germany as refugees were identified as torturers in an Assad prison and are now being tried. Similarly, the EU showed a credible response by issuing sanctions against 270 Syrians and 70 Syrian institutions allegedly responsible for war crimes.

Strengthening policy consensus among EU member states and with the US

To stop the suffering and the war, however, Brussels should take a stronger political stance, because the risks surrounding the Syrian conflict remain high. Here are just six: (1) Health, social and economic structures are continuing to collapse as a result of war, displacement, corruption, sanctions and the consequences of the corona pandemic in the three Syrian territories (Assad-held region, Idlib province, North-East). (2) The war surrounding Idlib province can be expected to continue if the Turkish-Russian ceasefire does not hold. (3) Military confrontations between Israel and Iran continue. (4) The Kurdish-Turkish conflict continues to smoulder. (5) Some “Islamic State” cells are re-strengthening. (6) Lebanon is drifting into social and financial chaos, and almost 1 million Syrian refugees are affected by the poverty and misery there.

The main external military actors are Russia, Iran (with militias including Hezbollah), Turkey and the US (with two remaining military bases).

“The Syrian regime led by President Bashar al-Assad has not yet achieved a complete military victory, but with Russian and Iranian help, it has ensured that it cannot be forced to step down. So far the regime may have won the war, but probably not the peace.”, said Middle East expert Daniel Gerlach in an article of Die Welt recently.

Efforts by the United Nations to find a political solution to the conflict in accordance with UN Resolution 2254 have been at a standstill for years.

The EU has been supporting this UN-approved solution diplomatically (see EU Syria Strategy of 2017 and the declarations of the four Brussels Syria Conferences). In the long term, however, Brussels would like to see the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian state established and the state functioning as a respected neighbour within the framework of the direct neighbourhood. This would mean a “new Syria” that would develop in the direction of states like Tunisia and Georgia, with stability and resilience based on pluralistic structures, the rule of law, good governance and inclusive social and economic participation. These are all criteria from which the Assad regime and the Islamist militias in Idlib are far removed.

The EU’s current hesitant and cautious Syria policy can be explained by the following: (1) Europe seems to have little influence when it comes to changing the behaviour of the Assad regime. (2) Europe seems to have limited tools to apply pressure (member states are reluctant to use military force) and few available incentives to decisively change the behaviour of Russia, Iran and Turkey. (3) European governments are concerned about having to reintegrate IS fighters who hold European citizenship. (4) European governments want to prevent more Syrian refugees from leaving Turkey for Greece, Cyprus and Bulgaria. (5) There is growing controversy among EU member states over the degree to which Europe should cooperate with the Assad regime in reconstruction efforts, as well as different assessments of the effectiveness of sanctions and how to deal with Turkey and Russia.

Even if the EU’s policy towards Syria is cautious for these five reasons, the EU-27 should nevertheless become more active in the following diplomatic fields in order to prevent the Syrian conflict from further spilling over into the EU:

(1) Re-strengthening the consensus of the EU-27 through more intensive dialogue with critics of the EU-Syria strategy, which can also be done by integrating Poland and Italy into the EU/E3 policy format; (2) more comprehensive coordination with US policy on Syria – starting with negotiating exemptions from US sanctions for humanitarian reasons; (3) maintaining targeted EU sanctions and not letting the regime decide on the distribution of humanitarian aid, bypassing it instead by shifting involvement to other internal societal forces; (4) intensive shuttle diplomacy, with several EU foreign ministers simultaneously travelling between Washington, Moscow, Ankara, Tehran, Riyadh and Jerusalem to reduce regional confrontations related to Syria; (5) close monitoring of the activities of Syrian embassies in EU member states, prevention of illegal activities and issuance of passport substitutes to EU-based Syrians in order to deprive the regime of access and income; (6) engagement in a dialogue involving Syrian Kurdish decision-makers and Turkey, with the aim of having Syrian Kurds become full-fledged citizens of a “new Syria”.

Syria on the to-do-list of the German EU Presidency

The Syrian conflict is also on the to-do list of the German EU Council Presidency, which is taking place in the second half of 2020. Syria is an important issue for Germany, which has welcomed over 800,000 Syrians as residents. Many are making uses of opportunities for education and training – some young Syrians who came to Germany as refugees in 2015 passed their school-leaving exams in June 2020.

Some Syrians would like to return to a truly “new Syria” that is secure, free and pluralistic, and where they can participate in the country’s economic and social reconstruction. A safe return will not be possible in the foreseeable future, neither to Idlib nor to the area under Assad’s control, as Syrian civil society organisations also pointed out in their appeal to the Fourth Brussels Syria Conference.

Further information

As part of the dialogue between EU officials and representatives of civil society, the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Europe Programme, together with the Dutch Clingendael Institute, contributed to an online seminar on 23 June entitled “EU options for dealing with the Syrian conflict”, helping reflect on Europe’s political role surrounding the Syrian conflict.

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