Brussels III Discloses gap between Syrian civil organizations and launches a new phase of Russian-European conflict in Syria
Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team
Enab Baladi – Mourad Abdul Jalil| Yemen Maghribi
With new political-economic orientations that set the European Union’s policy in Syria and differing from the two previous sessions, the activities of the third session of the Brussels-based Conference on “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region,” which was held between March 12 and 14, has been concluded with financial pledges of up to $ 7 billion.
The Conference was attended by 78 delegations including 56 countries, 11 regional organizations and international financial institutions and 11 UN agencies. At a time when the Syrians, whether from the regime or the opposition, have been politically absent, the Syrian civil society organizations attended closed meetings on the sidelines of the Conference to exchange views about the future of Syria and the political process in Geneva.
Although the main objective of the conference was to provide humanitarian help to the Syrians at home and abroad, it carried political messages to the regime and its supporters, especially Russia. In fact, this conference could mark a new phase between the European countries from one side and between Moscow, which is, trying to provoke Europeans in the refugee issue to re-float the regime, on the other side.
In addition, the conference disclosed the gap between civil society organizations throughout the whole Syrian territories. The organizations attended the conference without any goals to achieve or a clear vision for the future Syria.
Europe stands in the face of Russian blackmail
Brussels III dedicated to Geneva
Despite the holding of the third session of the conference, in conjunction with the path of Astana, it has not taken the characteristics of a path and has remained an annual conference that is held in conjunction with the United Nations and in the presence of its special envoy to Syria, who is currently Geir Pedersen. This is because the EU rejects the side paths that weaken the United Nations, according to Zaidoun al-Zoabi, CEO of the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM), who considered that Brussels has responded to the side-paths (Astana and Sochi) and their outcomes.
The Conference, hosted by the European Parliament and attended and headed by of the United Nations, carried out two sides: the first had been humanitarian relief and resulted in “exceptional generosity” for the benefit of Syria’s neighboring countries, according to the final communiqué of the Conference issued on 14 March 2019, with the participating countries pledging to grant $ 7 billion, which exceeds the pledges of Brussels II that amounted to about $ 6 billion. The second side had had a political nature by sending messages to the regime and its supporters, as well as to the countries sponsoring the course of Astana talks, Turkey, Russia, and Iran.
The political message had been conveyed by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, who stated before the closing session of the Conference that “the EU will be ready to provide the necessary funds for the reconstruction of Syria and discuss the matter with the World Bank, when the political process in Geneva starts,” in an emphasis on the Geneva talks between the conflicting parties in Syria under the auspices of the United Nations, and a cancellation of the Astana and Sochi talks.
In the course of Enab Baladi’s monitoring of the statements issued by conference in its last three sessions, it turned out that the present statement has not mentioned or supported the Astana talks, unlike the statements of the previous two sessions. The Brussels I statement, in 2017, stressed that “the Astana meetings have the potential to play a crucial role in consolidating and strengthening the cease-fire throughout Syria, with a Russian-Turkish guarantee and Iranian participation. The contributions of the Astana meetings should serve to complement the efforts of the Geneva working groups.” In Brussels II in 2018, the participating parties stressed their support of the working team that has been formed by the Astana talks’ guarantors regarding the detainees.
The Conference came after two economic events that have conveyed a strong message to al-Assad and his supporters. The first event was the European Union’s imposition of new sanctions on ministers in the Syrian regime, on March 4. The second event was the US Senate’s approval on the law of “Caesar” in early February, which imposes sanctions on high-level figures in the regime and its supporting countries.
Al-Zoabi considered that the imposition of new economic sanctions has conveyed the message, not only to the regime, but also to Russia, that sanctions would remain a key issue. In addition, the financial pledges have conveyed a message that the refugee issue is not to blackmail the European Union, which is ready to cooperate with the hosting countries (Syria’s neighboring countries and Europe) and make financial pledges, as long as the demands for a major political change in Syria have not yet been achieved.
Al-Zoabi also pointed out that the European Union does not have a common geography with Syria, or military forces on the ground, and has only the economic path to play a key role in the stage of the end of war, reconstruction, and development in Syria.
No reconstruction without a sustainable political solution
Mogherini’s statement has been followed by the issuance of the Conference’s conclusion report, which stressed that “the sustainable solution to the conflict in Syria can only be based on the Geneva 2012 statement,” and the full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The statement came as a result of the EU’s consultations with the participating independent Syrian civil society organizations, over the past two months, and based on the interventions made during the conference, according to the Executive Director of the Syria Justice & Accountability Centre (SJAC), Mohammad al-Abdallah.
Al-Abdallah talked to Enab Baladi about two “good” positions by the conference and Mogherini’s statement. From his perspective, the first position is that the issue of the repatriation of Syrian refugees is not put forward for discussion on the European Union’s table, and there is no plan to repatriate them by force, except for those who wish to return individually. “This is their right and no one would prevent them.” The United Nations will not participate in their repatriation. “Hence, the file of investment and refugees’ repatriation, which Russia and the regime is working on, would be ended and closed.”
As for the second position, it is linked to the file of reconstruction in Syria. The funds and pledges made in Brussels for reconstruction require a political process in which progress is made. The process is Geneva, not Astana or Sochi, which has broken the course of Geneva under the cover of the United Nations.
According to al-Abdallah, the two positions came as a response to the statements of the Syrian regime and in rejection of the official narrative of the events, which states that “the regime has won and the opposition has been defeated. Thus, the Europeans must deal with it realistically and start investing in reconstruction and the need for repatriating the refugees to rebuild their country. Accordingly, the EU has conveyed an essential message of its rejection of the Russian blackmail and that it is not in a hurry to repatriate Syrian refugees. On the contrary, it will strengthen and support the hosting countries of refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon through the provision of financial pledges.
Angry reactions: Regime rejection and Lebanese contradiction
The conference and its outcomes have faced criticism by the Syrian regime and its supporters, in addition to contradictory statements by Lebanese officials who opened lines with Damascus in attempts to pressure the refugees to return home.
The Syrian regime condemns the Brussels III Conference
The Syrian regime strongly condemned the Brussels III Conference, accusing the European Union of deliberate politicization of the humanitarian issue and its attempts to exploit it to prolong the Syrian crisis, a source in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants told the Syrian Arab News Agency SANA on 15 March.
The statement said that the European Union is a main partner in the war on Syria, especially at the level of “unilateral” sanctions, and that the aim of the conference is to draw out the crisis. It asserted that those responsible for the blood-shedding of the Syrian people over the past years are now mourning refugees in their speeches, which is ironic yet infuriating.
Russia: No for politicization
In a statement issued by the Russian-Syrian Coordination Center, Moscow expressed its hope that the donations would not be politicized and that the funds pledged by the countries “to establish peace” would be granted, considering that Damascus is ready to work with complete transparency regarding the expenditure of these funds.
Organizations calling for lifting sanctions
A group of local and civil associations working in areas under the control of the Syrian regime issued a paper of recommendations for the European Union “with a view to moving towards a better reality” with regard to the conference, according to the Facebook page of the Nation Building Movement on March 14.
The recommendations included a set of points including lifting of economic sanctions imposed by the European Union on Syria, and working on development projects in addition to ensuring the return of refugees with dignity to their areas of origin and working on the file of detainees.
These organizations also boycotted the conference and launched an “advocacy campaign” to lift economic sanctions and not politicize humanitarian files.
Lebanon: Brussels III conference passes through the political conflict “filter”
In Lebanon, the contradictory reactions to the conference continued, especially as the Syrian refugees’ card was directly involved in political conflicts.
While Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri stressed the need for a safe return of Syrian refugees and criticized the Syrian regime for its speech at the conference, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil threatened that the non-return of Syrian refugees means the collapse of the Lebanese government.
These statements came after Lebanon’s Minister of Displaced, Saleh al-Gharib, visited Damascus before the conference, and made similar statements to the Syrian regime’s version of the refugee issue; yet he was not invited to Brussels conference.
Financial pledges at the three Brussels conferences
Strong presence of civil society organizations
The multiplicity and diversity of independent Syrian civil society organizations, both inside and outside Syria, working on various human rights, refugee, humanitarian, medical and relief issues, was remarkable at the Brussels III conference. They contributed to the issuance of the final communiqué which was contrary to the Brussels II Conference last year, and which adopted a closer look at the demands of organizations coming from the regime-controlled areas.
The statement of “civil society” delivered by former UN envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, at the Brussels II conference, on April 25, 2018 has caused considerable controversy in the Syrian media and criticism by Syrian opposition activists because it contained what they called items and demands which contradict with the Syrian reality and used the terminology of the Syrian regime, such as “rejection of all kinds of occupation, especially the Israeli occupation,” talk about the exit of all foreign militias from Syria, without mentioning the names, and the need to activate the role of Syria’s consulates in the countries of asylum, which would facilitate the affairs of Syrian refugees, in addition to other demands through lifting of economic sanctions on the regime to put an end to the living crisis suffered by the Syrian citizen at home.
Al-Abdullah considered that the presence of independent civil society organizations in Brussels III was balanced, and that the majority of the organizations were not among those operating in the regime-controlled areas “which bear its vision.” This prevented the issuance of a “ridiculous” statement like that of the Brussels II, which did not meet the least demands of the Syrians, as he put it, pointing out that the pressure and early consultations that took place before the conference led to a multiplicity and diversity of organizations and, and therefore there was a fair presence of independent organizations which did not target political opposition, but rather Syrian victims in the first place.
Zaidoun al-Zoabi talked about two types of civil society organizations which attended the conference; namely organizations that came under the pressure of the Brussels II conference statement amid great pressure and fear of repeating the issue (organizations outside Syria), as well as organizations from the regime-controlled areas that came after tightening European sanctions and a major economic crisis, which the regime itself attributes exclusively to economic sanctions.
Organizations rejecting the role of the “background actor”
During the conference, representatives of civil society organizations coming from the regime-controlled areas boycotted the dialogue sessions and expressed their protest. They considered that there is a discrimination process between the organizations working inside Syria and those working abroad in terms of the percentage of participants and the opportunity to talk.
Zaidoun attributed the withdrawal of these organizations to the conference’s anti-regime position and increasing penalties. Therefore, these organizations have been subjected to great pressure and some people were accused of treason because they have been involved with Europeans, who were imposing severe economic sanctions on Syria and its citizens (according to pro-regime point of view).
Al-Zoabi said that the boycott came to convey two messages. The first one is urging the regime not to accept any decisions passed in Brussels. While, the second message is addressing the European Union and highlighting that these organizations cannot play the “role of extras”. He also stressed that some figures belonging to those organizations were using this term frequently and in case they were not present at the scene they would not be able to attend.
On the other hand, al-Abdullah believes that the withdrawal of organizations, coming originally from regime-held areas was due to their inability to pass and issue a statement such as the one in Brussels II statement, in which they called for lifting the economic sanctions. However, the momentum of the independent organizations and the balanced preparation of the conference as well as the speeches delivered, which focused on relief and targeting medical facilities, prevented that. Therefore, the representatives of those organizations and Syrian regime loyalists could react only through boycotting Civil Society Support Room.
Al-Abdullah ruled out that the boycott was the result of the pressure exercised by the regime. However, he believes that the representatives present from within the system areas are close to the regime and work in its favor. “Unfortunately, there is no independent organization operating within regime-held areas, such as the Syrian Red Crescent, classified as one of the world’s independent organizations,” he said. On the counterpart, in Syria, this organization is being supervised by the security services, as neither its staff nor head can adopt a public stance other than the official one even though they may sympathize with the victims.”
Civil society lacking a vision.. and brought together by foreigners
A widening gap between Syrian organizations
The conference revealed the great gap between all the Syrian civil society organizations, as well as their inability to set the political file aside and adopt a clear vision for the future of Syria.
Active Syrian organizations are divided into three groups. Some of these organizations are mainly located in opposition-held areas in North Syria and a large number is in Turkey. Other organizations are located in Self-Management-held areas in north-east Syria, and most of them are working from Europe or Iraqi Kurdistan, in addition to the ones active in regime-held areas and working in Damascus or from Lebanon.
Cooperation between these organizations has not been interrupted, but it has been severely shaken because of politics, according to al-Zoabi who blamed all Syrian organizations for the lack of communication between them outside the scope of the meetings held by the United Nations or the European Union. He added that these organizations avoid meetings unless they are officially invited, which is actually dangerous.
Al-Zoabi said meetings are taking place in Beirut or Europe between the figures of the organizations operating in every part of Syria. However, such meetings are not held in preparation for international meetings such as Brussels or Geneva and need the initiative of a third non-Syrian party so that Syrians would attend. Then, those meetings would send conflicting and unconsolidated messages without having a real agenda.
Al-Zoabi did not put the blame on the third party, whether the United Nations or the European Union, but rather on the Syrians of all parties. He wondered why the Syrians would wait for a third party to hold a meeting. Why won’t they meet outside the Brussels or Geneva, set their agenda and provide consolidated messages even if they were not on the same page. He believed that failing to do so will be at the root of serious differences between these organizations.
In reference to the Syrian regime’s establishing control over some organizations at home and their inability to meet with other organizations, especially those working in the opposition-held areas, al-Zoabi stressed that nothing is preventing them from meeting other organizations in order to set an agenda and agree before any international meeting. He pointed out that some organizations in regime-held areas meet with other organizations, in Beirut, via Skype or in Brussels. So, there is no obstacle to hinder these meetings.
The Director General of USSOM (Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations) said that the confusion at the level concepts and terminology about organizations at home and abroad further widened the gap between them. “Unfortunately, all parties coming from home are referred to as pro-regime organizations, and abroad are all the parties coming from Turkey. This term is very discriminatory to those who came from Damascus and Turkey, and to those who are from Idlib. ”
Al-Zoabi believed that the use of the term “home”, which should not only refer to Damascus, sharpened polarization and increased the gap between the opposition civil society organizations and others which do not classify themselves as being opponents to the regime.
Referring to the intentions all the Syrian civil society organizations have behind attending Brussels III, al-Zoabi stressed that the organizations did not have a declared objective behind their presence. No one knew about the real motives behind their attendance. He pointed out that unless there is an initiative from within the Syrian civil society to meet outside Geneva or Brussels “we will not be able to accomplish anything or find any common ground or vision. We will remain waiting for foreign initiatives to bring us together.”
Financial pledges that may not be met
The second part of the conference tackled the economic aspect and the countries’ financial pledges. The United Nations’ declared the need for nine billion dollars to cover the needs of the Syrians in 2019 and seven billion dollars were raised. Germany provided the largest donations pledging to offer 1.44 billion Euros to support the Syrian people, while the European Union donated 2 billion Euros and Britain s pledged 464 million Euros while Austria offered 9 million dollars.
The conference also witnessed the return of the US after refraining from participating in Brussels II. It has pledged to offer around 397 million dollars to the Syrian people, allocated as follows: 135 million dollars for Syrians at home, 97 million dollars for Syrians in Lebanon, 57 million dollars in Jordan, 18 million dollars in Turkey and another for the ones in Iraq, in addition for 6 million dollars for those in Egypt and 3 million dollars in “regional” support for Syrians.
Turkey Country Director of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), Dr. Mazen Kewara, stated that such commitments were made to the refugees and the Syrians inside and outside Syria, in order to cover all the needs. However, these figures are not actually tangible amounts of money to be paid, but rather commitments undertaken by donors which are not necessarily paid in full. A similar incident has occurred last year when countries pledged to raise six billion dollars, but managed to gather 60 percent of the amount only.
These funds are designated as a humanitarian response directed to the refugees’ assistance, other than financial aid that can be pledged by the states in order to support other non-humanitarian fields, such as stabilization or reconstruction.
The United Nations humanitarian needs are assessed on an annual basis through a project called Humanitarian Needs Overview (HNO). This project, which has been under preparation since late 2018 and issued in early 2019, was referred to as a basis for the Humanitarian Response Plan and the amount of resources needed.
Kewara stressed that these funds are distributed according to demographic rates in the regions. Currently, the majority of the population is concentrated in areas under the regime’s control. Thus, the financial aid is distributed by the UN and partly by international organizations. Nonetheless, the same process is more frequently undergone in the areas dominated by the opposition, where the UN and international organizations are more active.
He pointed out that the most prominent sector that must be supported and maintained during the current year in the north of Syria is the education sector, which is the most disadvantaged sector. This indifference towards education can lead to dangerous repercussions. Nevertheless, the housing sector needs intensive development as more than half of the population of the north is displaced and more than 1.200.000 Syrians live in difficult conditions inside refugee camps.
How much money goes to Syrians?
The United Nations relief organizations are frequently accused by Syrians of misusing the funds due to high salaries paid to relief officials and employees working in these organizations, especially as operating expenses are cut from financial aid pledged from countries, which causes a reduction in the amount of funds reaching the beneficiaries.
However, Kewara linked the proportion of funds that reaches the beneficiaries with the sector in question. If the sector is based on distribution, such as the nutrition, health and cleaning sectors, it does not need human or administrative costs that can significantly cut the funding. As such, the funds received by relief organizations are shrunk due to deductions directed to the employees’ operating and administrative expenses, while the remaining funds are transferred to materials and goods that are distributed among Syrians.
In the case of other sectors, which depend mainly on human resources, such as the medical sector, Kewara asserted that the medical personnel need to be paid in order to treat the beneficiaries, whose number may reach 100 per day, considering that the percentages vary by sector.
He expressed his dissatisfaction with the huge administrative ratios deducted by the UN and international organizations, considering that the high administrative expenses cut from the funds represent “a general disease” affecting the whole world and not just Syria.
Kewara conveyed that the payments of such high expenses are made with the consent of the donors and the states that pledge funds. Hence, those who accuse aid workers in organizations of theft, which is not true, do not know that these high rates are deducted after receiving the donor countries’ approval.