Borrell to Enab Baladi: Presidential elections will not lead to international normalization with Damascus
The European Union’s policy on the Syrian conflict has crystallized over ten years of the Syrian revolution, with restricting sanctions against the Syrian regime and its supporters on the one hand and overseeing the arrival of European relief aid to Syria and the region on the other hand.
This policy, however, was not met with domestic consensus in Syria. The European Union (EU) and Washington were criticized for their sanctions’ impact on ordinary Syrians, which the EU responded to by pointing out the entities and persons targeted by the sanctions and how humanitarian operations and legitimate trade were excluded from sanctions.
The EU, together with the United Nations (UN), co-chair the fifth Brussels Conference on “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region” on 29 and 30 March in a virtual format due to COVID-19 restrictions.
The EU states that the Brussels Conference’s overarching objective is to continue supporting the Syrian people and mobilize the international community in support of a comprehensive and credible political solution to the Syrian conflict, in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
The fifth Brussels Conference will address the most pressing issues in terms of resilience issues and humanitarian situations affecting Syrians and communities hosting refugees from Syria, both inside the country and in the region, similarly to the four previous conferences. It will also renew the international community’s political and financial support for Syria’s neighboring countries, particularly Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, as well as Egypt and Iraq, as this conference will be the main pledging event for financial assistance to Syria and the region in 20121.
Enab Baladi interviewed Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the Vice-President of the Commission, and asked him a set of questions regarding the European Union’s policy in Syria, at a time of intense economic pressure on Syrians, as 90 percent of the population live below the poverty line. At the same time, the Syrian regime prepares to hold presidential elections whose results are already decided by Bashar al-Assad’s win, hence dimming the scene for a possible political solution.
- Ten years after the Syrian war, there is no certainty about the possibility of getting to a political solution to end the crisis. The tracks that the EU and the UN are supporting have stalled, and the rug was pulled in favor of the one led by Russia. What is the EU’s vision and the tools at its disposal to push for a sustainable solution in Syria?
The point that we have made countless times remains valid: there is no military solution to this conflict. There are many foreign actors involved in the Syrian conflict crisis but none of them holds the key to it. It will be up to the Syrians, up to all Syrians I should say, to solve this conflict. Under the auspices of the UN and of resolution 2254.
We are Syria’s neighbor. Our vision for it is simple: we want it secure for its people and stable. This will come only if there is an inclusive political solution and end of repression. It does not mean destroyed people living in a destroyed country. It means sustainable stability. It means rebuilding the Syrian house on new foundations, that will prevent it from collapsing again. How to rebuild the house, on what foundations exactly, is for the Syrians to decide.
- The Syrian regime president Bashar al-Assad is ignoring the pressure coming from the Arab world (both on the political and economic front) and is getting ready to hold elections whose outcome is already established in his favor. What is the EU’s position regarding the elections? Could there be conditions to be fulfilled for the holding of elections in the near future whereby Syrian refugees and displaced could participate and the UN could observe?
The European Union provides election support everywhere on the planet. Of course we would be prepared to support elections in Syria too. However, if we want elections that contribute to the settlement of the conflict, they must be held in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 2254, under supervision of the UN, and seek to satisfy the highest international standards: they must be free and fair, all candidates must be allowed to run and campaign freely, there is a need for transparency and accountability and, last but not least, all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, must be able to participate. The regime’s elections later this year cannot fulfil these criteria, therefore they cannot lead to international normalization with Damascus.
You mentioned the Arab world. I want to stress that I see Arab countries as a key partner in establishing durable peace in Syria. Of course, ultimately, Syria should come back to the Arab family. But we believe that this should only take place when a political transition is firmly underway. The upcoming elections that are not in line with 2254 should not result in normalization.
- The economic pressure is piling up on the Syrian people. 90% of them live now under the poverty line according to the UN. And there is no denying the influence of Western sanctions on citizens in a context marked by the intransigence of the Syrian regime. What is the EU’s approach to target the regime’s infrastructure and its military establishment and the policies that are responsible for the violence, taking into consideration their impact on ordinary citizens?
We are acutely aware of the economic situation of Syria. The EU, Member States included, is by far the main donor for addressing the consequences of the ten years of war. We have provided close to €25 billion altogether to address the consequences of the crisis, within Syria and in the region. This is a huge amount of money. Of course we would have preferred to spend those funds rebuilding the country, investing them for the long term. But we had to support the Syrians, and Syrian refugees, and the countries and the communities going to such great lengths to host them.
Syria’s economy has been in freefall since late 2019. There are many reasons behind this: poor management, the predatory attitude of the regime’s cronies and, possibly the most important of all recently, the consequences of the Lebanese crisis, and the COVID pandemic. Our sanctions are mostly targeted at individuals and entities who took part in the repression or helped finance it. They are designed to neither hit the Syrians, nor prevent legitimate trade, nor affect humanitarian aid. The EU’s approach and its sanctions themselves have not changed since we first introduced them in 2011. How could they be responsible for the downward spiral of the last two years?
- What is the impact that the EU expects from the ongoing prosecution in European courts against those who committed war crimes, especially if those responsible are in Syria or outside the EU?
Many of the atrocities committed in Syria since 2011 qualify for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The EU will relentlessly pursue accountability for these acts. We see it as the indispensable basis for national reconciliation and for lasting peace in Syria.
We will continue to support efforts to gather evidence, as well as international bodies for accountability. We have repeatedly called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court.
In the absence of this avenue for international justice, the prosecution of such crimes under national jurisdiction, where possible, as done in Germany, and the recent initiative of the Netherlands and Canada represent an important contribution towards securing justice for the victims.
- The Syrian asylum crisis is considered the biggest in history, and today we are witnessing that some Member States have clear doubts about the migration pact. Some have not respected their obligations. Does the EU have the means to contain these differences? What is needed to conclude an agreement that would guarantee the rights of Member States and does not violate those of the refugees who are trying to reach these European countries?
The New Pact on Migration and Asylum guarantees that everyone will benefit from an individual assessment of their asylum claim and essential guarantees will be respected in every asylum procedure, including the border procedure. This will protect effective access to the asylum procedure, the right to liberty, the rights of the child as well as the right to an effective remedy.
We are repealing the Dublin Regulation, which regulated the rules on assigning responsibility for asylum claims until now. The new regulation has a much broader scope and creates a balanced, comprehensive migration management system.
- There are thousands of Syrian refugees in neighboring countries to Syria and in European countries such as Greece. They are waiting for the completion of procedures for their resettlement. The delays may be due to security or administrative reasons. Can these procedures be accelerated?
You need to factor in the Covid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, it has changed the way we all work: from the way I conduct foreign policy, to the way we carry out administrative procedures.
Having said that, already in April 2020 we issued a guidance on resettlement in Covid-19 times and asked Member States to enhance resettlements and step up implementation. Despite the restrictions in place in Europe, many Member States have shown adaptability and flexibility. They adopted new working methods such as remote interviewing to keep the resettlement operations going. This work is supported by the European Asylum Support Office, which has focused on the Covid-19 response last year. We are doing all our best, but nonetheless we are aware that there are health and security considerations that remain an issue in the current context.
- What is the EU position regarding the decision of some countries to return Syrian refugees to regions that are considered to be safe inside Syria? For instance, along the lines of what Denmark decided or similar decisions by Germany and Sweden?
Our EU position on returns has not changed. While we understand and support the aspirations of some Syrians to voluntarily return home, we still believe that the conditions for large-scale returns are not there yet. We follow the parameters set by UNHCR that make pretty clear that at present the conditions inside Syria do not lend themselves to the promotion of large-scale returns in conditions of safety and dignity in line with international law.
We have seen what happened with the limited returns that have taken place and the many obstacles and threats still faced by returning internally displaced persons and refugees. I am thinking in particular of forced conscription, indiscriminate detention, forced disappearances, torture, physical and sexual violence, discrimination in access to housing, land and property as well as poor or inexistent basic services.
All Syrians need to be able to feel safe and to have a dignified life in order to return and rebuild their Syrian house.
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