Politically soft, financially disappointing: Brussels VI Conference

Part of the attendees at the Brussels VI Conference on supporting the future of Syria and the region (conference site)

Politically soft, financially disappointing: Brussels VI Conference

Part of the attendees at the Brussels VI Conference on supporting the future of Syria and the region (conference site)

Part of the attendees at the Brussels VI Conference on supporting the future of Syria and the region (conference site)

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Hussam al-Mahmoud | Jana al-Issa | Lujain Mourad

Without bringing anything new to the faltering political track, on 9 and 10 May, the Brussels VI Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region was held in the Belgian capital, which included in its agenda the scale of humanitarian needs in Syria, calling for the UN Resolution “2254”, which provides for a political transition in Syria. 

The outcomes of the Brussels VI Conference did not differ much in its last round from what it came before in the first conference in 2017, which was a continuation of three conferences hosted by Kuwait between 2013 and 2015, and the London Conference in 2016.

Brussels VI also witnessed the absence of Russia in light of the stifling political tension it is experiencing with the EU countries since Moscow invaded Ukraine on 24 February, which necessarily means the absence of the regime and the absence of anyone who could represent it or speak on its behalf at the conference, while the Syrian opposition’s National Coalition was invited to attend the conference.

The Brussels VI Conference raised the ceiling of its financial pledges, which are controlled by the EU, based on the growing needs of the Syrians with the Syrian revolution entering its 12th year, and the effects of the Russian war on Ukraine and its economic repercussions.

According to the numbers, and by comparing them with what the countries pledged throughout the years of the conference, the wording of the pledges is similar to the previous ones, without guaranteeing the translation of those numbers on the ground and the implementation of the amounts that they adopted, in addition to the escalation of humanitarian need in the current year, according to UN statistics confirming this on more than one level.

In this lengthy article, Enab Baladi discussed with a group of experts and economic and political analysts, and those concerned with the conference the political feasibility of the conference, the mechanism of its convening and the selection of speakers for the Syrians, as well as the reflection of the financial pledges of donor countries on the ground, whether inside Syria or in its neighboring countries that host about 5.5 million Syrian refugees.

With no Russian role, expectations not high

What is the political feasibility of Brussels VI?

The Brussels VI Conference stressed the need for a political transition in Syria and the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution “2254” since its first session years ago.

The EU countries, the conference’s largest donors, also linked the reconstruction process in Syria to serious steps towards a political transition.

A few days before the conference, several human rights organizations recommended donor countries at the conference to take a set of measures to keep aid away from any kind of politicization. On 6 May, the Syrians for Justice and Accountability organization published a report in which it called with a group of organizations to activate the role of the UN and the EU in managing aid provided by donors and the need to ensure that those accused of humanitarian violations are not allowed to exploit the humanitarian situation of civilians.

Among the most important recommendations of the conference were moving away from politicizing aid on discriminatory grounds, the issue of forced deportation of Syrian refugees, advancing the peace process, dealing with sanctions, and ensuring their review at a time when the conference was predominantly economic.

Yahya Maktabi, a member of the political body in the Syrian opposition’s National Coalition, who attended the conference’s activities, confirmed in an interview with Enab Baladi that support for a political solution was not absent from the conference, but the circumstances are complicated, which prevents the progress of the political process, especially given the position of the regime’s supporters, and the lack of seriousness in dealing with a political solution.

Maktabi said that the Brussels VI Conference was devoted to collecting donations that fall into the humanitarian track and that the National Coalition confirms that it is not possible to reach a sustainable solution to a humanitarian disaster through a humanitarian solution only, as a serious political solution must be reached by applying international resolutions, the Geneva 1 statement and the resolution “2254”.

Regarding the benefit of holding the conference, Maktabi also indicated that pledge numbers did not exceed expectations, attributing this to international circumstances and the challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic, the slowdown in the international economy, and Russia’s war on Ukraine.

The opposition figure explained that the sums provided by countries are good in relation to these considerations, and he also stressed the inability to evaluate the conference outside of what it was held for, which is the subject of donations.

The Syrian file returned strongly during the conference to be part of the discussions and research circle, with the need not to raise the ceiling too high because the Syrian case is not simple at all, as a result of the presence of a group of regional and international actors on the Syrian arena, Maktabi said, pointing at the same time to the reactivation of the Syrian file on the list of countries’ interests after going through a recession in the previous period.

The stance of the EU regarding Syria remains unchanged. It is not possible to normalize, lift sanctions, or rebuild before the Syrian regime engages in a political transition process and the full implementation of Security Council Resolution No. “2254”.

The recent war on Ukraine has certain implications for Syria, whether humanitarian (possible effects on cross-border operations), economic or political, noting that the situation in Syria was already deteriorating even before the “invasion” of Ukraine.

Head of the EU Delegation to Syria, Dan Stoenescu, told Enab Baladi.

A displaced Syrian woman carrying a humanitarian aid box in Idlib city, northwest Syria - 19 February 2020 (AFP)

A displaced Syrian woman carrying a humanitarian aid box in Idlib city, northwest Syria – 19 February 2020 (AFP)

Russian absence

Moscow underestimated the conference a few days before it was held, as the Russian Foreign Ministry considered holding the Brussels VI Conference without inviting Damascus and Moscow as “worthless,” according to what was reported by the Russia Today channel on 7 May.

The Russian Foreign Ministry described the conference as turning, without the participation of representatives of Syria and Russia, and after losing UN sponsorship, into a gathering of a “group” of Westerners, “which has no added value in the real pursuit of solving urgent humanitarian problems in Syria away from any politicization and within the framework of the recognized guiding principle for international humanitarian support.

In response to Moscow’s absence, the Head of the EU Delegation to Syria, Dan Stoenescu, told Enab Baladi, “We have invited partners who have a real interest to contribute to peace in the world, while Russia has proven the opposite through its attacks on Ukraine.”

In an interview with Enab Baladi, Stoenescu assured that the political reason for Russia’s exclusion from the conference is its role in Ukraine, not Syria.

“The EU and its member states will continue to advance global efforts to pressure Russia to immediately stop its military aggression against Ukraine and withdraw from all parts of the country with full respect for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence,” Stoenescu said.

He stressed that “The EU, along with a number of its partners, carried a clear message to international forums rejecting the Russian military aggression against Ukraine.”

Russia’s attendance of previous Brussels conferences, despite its involvement in war crimes in Syria, angered the Syrians because the European Union did not take its decision to exclude Moscow in previous years, given the effects of its intervention in Syria.

Syrian diplomat Danny al-Baaj, the head of the Advocacy and Communication Department at the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, says that what prevents the EU from making a decision previously is international law, which considers Russia’s intervention in Syria legitimate since it was asked for by the “legitimate” government of the regime, which still retains its seat in the United Nations.

In an interview with Enab Baladi, al-Baaj stressed that what is happening in Ukraine is “aggression and war” carried out by a state against a state. The political position and the position of the UN, in this case, are different, he added.

Economic analyst Radwan al-Dibs believes that the political solution is linked to what is economic in Syria and that the Brussels conference seeks to lay a basic ground for an economic solution through greater activation of services and rehabilitation of infrastructure.

He also clarified at the same time that considering the conference only economic or financial means emptying it of its content, as there will be no pledges in the event that the pursuit of a political solution stops, and this explains the almost complete Arab absence from the conference’s pledges, with the exception of a timid Qatari contribution.

Al-Dibs pointed out a difference between the European and Arab styles, and specifically the Gulf one, with regard to pledges.

“The Europeans are pushing the financial approach in order to facilitate reaching a political solution, while the Gulf States prefer not to pay before a radical solution to the issue is reached and not to deal with one part of the problem without the other.”

Regarding the difference between the last and previous session of the conference, al-Dibs stressed that the conference is a duplicate version of which its recommendations are returned annually, in addition to pledges of donations that countries may not fully meet because the conference does not come out with binding decisions in the first place, says al-Dibs.

Adding that the conference carried European messages to Russia and perhaps hinted at keeping it away from the Syrian file, which is unrealistic, and that the political gains from the convening of the conference are absent.

No place for Syrian regime, UN not a sponsor

The criteria for selecting participants

According to the European Union website, the conference was attended by the institutions of the EU and its member states, the widest possible range of the international community, regional and international organizations, including the United Nations, the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), the Red Cross and Red Crescent, and local and international NGOs, and representatives of Syrian civil society organizations.

Within the activities over the two days of Brussels VI, the Syrian civil society organizations and the international organizations present gave the opportunity to dialogue on the living and societal issues that Syrians suffer today, regardless of the areas in which they live, inside or outside Syria.

EU’s Foreign Policy Chief, Josep Borrell, speaks at a press conference during Brussels VI Conference on supporting the future of Syria and the region, Belgium - 10 May 2022. (Xinhua)

EU’s Foreign Policy Chief, Josep Borrell, speaks at a press conference during Brussels VI Conference on supporting the future of Syria and the region, Belgium – 10 May 2022. (Xinhua)

Attendance criteria

The Brussels VI Conference is a platform for dialogue between civil society actors from within Syria and the region, as well as in the diaspora and between refugee-hosting countries, implementing partners involved in the Syrian response, and the EU.

Through these events, the speakers send messages of their choice in the various sectors that the pledges resulting from the conference should contribute to reducing the size of their negative impact on Syrians, whether political or economic.

Assaad al-Achi, the executive director of the Baytna Syria organization, who participated in the activities of the Brussels VI, told Enab Baladi that civil society organizations operating in Syria did not have a large presence in Brussels and most of their participation was done online.

Regarding the mechanism for selecting civil society organizations that are allowed to participate in the Brussels VI Conference or independent persons participating in the events, the activist and interested in social justice issues Waseem al-Haj said, in an interview with Enab Baladi, that the nominations of the attendees are usually from civil groups inside Syria, or from international organizations.

To find out additional details about the mechanism for selecting attendance, Enab Baladi contacted the press office of the EU, but it did not receive any response until the publishing of this article.

Post-Brussels conference financial tracking - 26 March 2021 (EU’s official website)

Post-Brussels conference financial tracking – 26 March 2021 (EU’s official website)

Limited representation for Syrian regime  

The Syrian regime has considered the Brussels VI Conference, since its inception in 2017, a “politicized conference that does not reflect any real eagerness to help the Syrian people,” as it was not invited to any season of it.

However, civil society organizations operating in its areas of control had a “wide” presence at the beginning of its launch, according to opinions heard by Enab Baladi from activists and officials who attended the conference at the time.

While this attendance did not have a “remarkable presence,” according to a number of attendees of the Brussels VI Conference, Enab Baladi interviewed them.

Al-Haj, who was one of the attendees of the Brussels VI, also clarified that he did not notice the presence or talk during the two days of the conference of organizations operating in regime-controlled areas, whether as speakers or as attendees.

UN as attendee, not sponsor

During the previous years, the United Nations participated in sponsoring Brussels conferences alongside the EU, but this year it chose to attend the conference as a participant only, as any of the invited countries or organizations, without having any role in organizing, what some considered “a decline in interest” in the Syrian issue.

Danny al-Baaj, of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression says that the reason for this may be to avoid embarrassing the UN because Russia was not invited to attend the conference.

He added that the United Nations is a neutral organization, and its member states must all be equal in such conferences, so to sponsor the conference, it must invite everyone, and this is what the EU does not want.

The EU is a political entity empowered to choose the invitees to the conference without causing it any political or diplomatic embarrassment.

Part of the attendees at the Brussels VI Conference on supporting the future of Syria and the region (conference site)

Part of the attendees at the Brussels VI Conference on supporting the future of Syria and the region (conference site)

Brussels VI pledges still timid

International and local organizations are striving to deal with the humanitarian situation in Syria and limit the negative impact of the poor living conditions of the Syrians inside Syria and in the countries neighboring Syria as well, namely Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey, at a time when 60 percent of Syrians spend their days worried about their ability to secure their next meal.

Prior to the start of the Brussels VI Conference, the UN requested more than 10.5 billion US dollars for 2022, according to a statement by the organization’s leaders on Syria and the region.

On the other hand, the neighboring countries hosting Syrian refugees annually request billions of dollars that exceed what donors pledge during the Brussels conferences.

Unprecedented need

Dozens of organizations warned ahead of the Brussels VI Conference of a “catastrophic” future that awaits the Syrians due to the deterioration of most sectors affecting life in Syria and neighboring countries, amid fears of a decrease in the volume of pledges compared to previous years in the presence of global economic crises.

Bassam al-Ahmad, the director of the Syrians for Truth and Justice organization, one of the Brussels VI participants, stressed in an interview with Enab Baladi the depth of the humanitarian need in Syria.

Al-Ahmad said that the need is unprecedented in Syria, referring to the many crises that Syrians have experienced during the past two years, such as the loss of agricultural seasons due to climatic factors, frost and drought, and the high prices of various types of basic commodities.

All of this is accompanied by a sharp rise in the level of economic inflation globally for countries that have some economic immunity, which is non-existent in Syria, which doubles the impact of these global crises when they are projected onto the Syrian reality.

Al-Ahmad rules out the emergence of a clear impact of pledges and donations due to the huge number of Syrians who need aid, which is an unprecedented number in the Syrian case, in reference to more than 14 million Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance, according to UN organizations.

The pledges of Brussels VI Conference are the main carrier for the Syrians inside and outside the country, and an essential and indispensable focal point, no matter how limited their apparent impact.

Bassam al-Ahmad, the director of Syrians for Truth and Justice organization

According to the expectations of Dr. Mazen Kawara, the director of the Turkey and Northern Syria office for the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), there are no indications that the impact of the pledges has changed significantly during the current year compared to previous years, as the needs are increasing and the economic situation is getting worse, and the importance of aid is constantly escalating.

Kawara added, during an interview with Enab Baladi, that the commitments to the pledges put the humanitarian response at an acceptable level compared to the required level, stressing at the same time that these pledges are an indispensable necessity for the Syrians.

Factors limiting commitments impact  

After the pledge numbers were announced at the Brussels Conference, which approached 6.4 billion euros, for 2022, according to the European Union website, these pledges are supposed to help people in Syria and the neighboring countries hosting Syrian refugees.

The mentioned amounts are considered a promising indicator of the ability to meet the great need for some, while others believe that the inability to see the clear impact of pledges during conferences is a gateway to many questions about the reasons for the absence of the clear impact of those pledges.

Assaad al-Achi, the executive director of Baytna Syria, says the lack of funding, the inefficiency in dealing with the funds provided to the organizations, and the theft of aid in some cases, are the main factors that limit the impact of the pledges.

Pledges are not binding on countries or donors, as some bodies provide more amounts than they pledged, while certain circumstances require others to provide less than the announced amounts, says Dr. Kawara.

He added that the appeals of UN organizations and actors in Syria and neighboring countries show a gap between the amounts required by the Syrian reality and the pledge numbers.

The director of SAMS attributed the reason for the rising need in the opposition-controlled areas to the fact that most of the pledges are poured into the funds of the UN organizations, which provide the bulk of support to the regime-controlled areas.

Dr. Kawara has also attributed this to the presence of a high population density in the regime-controlled areas, despite the high population density in northwestern Syria.

Politicization and manipulation

The politicization of aid or the theft of aid has played a major role in increasing the suffering of the Syrians and the inability to meet their needs in the absence of a political solution in Syria, and the necessity of many organizations to deal with various local actors.

The Syrian regime and its Russian ally are the most prominent parties whose role in the reports showed in politicizing aid by putting pressure on the international community to prevent the provision of aid through border crossings.

The regime’s demands to control the aid sector by forcing organizations to deal with it permanently also show an economic benefit to it.

This is what Moscow is seeking to achieve by stopping the cross-border aid mechanism that is currently limited through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey and replacing the cross-line aid mechanism with it, which means restricting the distribution of aid to the government of the Syrian regime in Damascus, which is what the Syrians are waiting to vote next July, the date of the expiration of the validity of the UN resolution for the cross-border aid mechanism.

According to Dan Stoenescu, the Head of the EU Delegation to Syria, this year, the EU is deeply concerned about the possibility of not renewing the UN resolution on cross-border operations, which is expected to be issued next July.

Despite being prepared for this eventuality, there is, in fact, no viable alternative to providing aid across borders, given the enormous humanitarian needs. This is why the EU will continue to advocate for humanitarian exceptions, opening border crossings for operations and de-politicizing them. Conditioning humanitarian aid for millions of people for selfish political reasons is not a viable option.

The pledges are considered less than the need seen by the active organizations in Syria, as the Syrian Response Coordination Group (SRCG) considered the pledge numbers “disappointing.”

In its report, issued on 10 May, the SRCG clarified that pledge numbers are close to 2021, during which countries provided about 60 percent more than they pledged, without this limiting the deterioration of the living situation.

According to a study conducted by researchers from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Operations and Policy Center (OPC), the Syrian regime obtains millions of dollars in foreign aid by forcing UN agencies to use a lower exchange rate.

Bassam al-Ahmad, the director of Syrians for Truth and Justice, confirmed that there are accusations of the Syrian regime providing aid funds to certain parties at the expense of others, pointing to the negative impact that results from the politicization of aid.

Al-Ahmad considered that all parties are beneficiaries, including neighboring countries, some of which deal with refugees as political or economic pressure cards.

Meeting of the foreign ministers of the countries participating in the Brussels VI Conference (conference website)

Meeting of the foreign ministers of the countries participating in the Brussels VI Conference (conference website)

Six years after Brussels Conference

Brussels VI

The EU has pledged more than five billion euros out of the 6.7 billion US dollars, with more than 3.24 billion dollars from the European Commission and 7.71 billion dollars from EU member states.

The European Union and its member states have thus remained the largest donors supporting people in Syria and the region since 2011, mobilizing 27.4 billion euros (28.6 billion US dollars) overall.

Brussels V, 2021

At the Brussels V Conference, international donors pledged to provide 4.4 billion US dollars for 2021 and about 2 billion US dollars for 2022 and beyond in humanitarian aid to residents inside Syria and to Syrian refugees and the communities hosting them in the neighboring regions.

In a statement issued by the two co-chairs of the conference from the UN and the EU, after the conference ended on 30 March, they said that international financial institutions and donors announced the provision of nearly 7 billion US dollars in soft loans.

On 29 March 2021, the UN called for providing more than 10 billion US dollars, needed by 24 million people in Syria and neighboring countries, in various forms of humanitarian aid.

Brussels IV, 2020

At the Brussels IV Conference, which was held on 30 June 2020, international donors pledged to provide humanitarian aid to Syria and five neighboring countries at a value of 5.5 billion US dollars for the year 2020, compared to 2.2 billion US dollars for the year 2021, in addition to soft loans amounting to 6.7 billion US dollars.

At the time, the UN called on donors to support 11 million Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance throughout Syria and about six million in countries of asylum.

On 16 October 2020, the European Commission announced that international donors had exceeded their pledges announced at the Brussels IV Conference, as they provided an amount of five billion US dollars in 2020.

The UNHCR explained in its report that the declared support went to the Syrian interior and five neighboring countries hosting refugees (Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt).

Russia participated for the first time in the Brussels IV Conference, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin considered, at the time, that “the main issues of Syria, whether they are the return of refugees or providing humanitarian assistance and advancing the political process, should not be discussed without representatives of the legitimate government.”

Brussels III, 2019

International donors at the conference pledged 7 billion US dollars for 2019 and 2.4 billion US dollars for 2020, and international financial institutions provided about 21.02 billion US dollars in soft loans.

In the statement of the closing session of the conference, which was held between 12 and 14 March 2019 in the Belgian capital, the meeting countries pledged to allocate the amount for the displaced inside Syria and the refugees in its neighboring countries, for the year 2019, according to what the European Commission stated on its official website.

The UN announced at the time that it needed nine billion dollars to cover the needs of the Syrians in 2019, but the conference collected 7 billion US dollars of the organization’s need, compared to 11.7 million Syrians who need assistance and protection, in addition to depriving more than two million Syrian children of education, and an estimated 83 percent of the Syrians below the poverty line at the time, according to the UN.

Brussels II, 2018

International donors pledged at the second Brussels II Conference to provide an amount of 4.4 billion US dollars to support life-saving humanitarian aid inside Syria and in the region during 2018, and 3.4 billion US dollars for the period between 2019 and 2020, and some international financial institutions announced the provision of about 2.21 billion US dollars in soft loans.

The UN had announced its need for about nine billion dollars to cover the needs of more than 13 million Syrians and more than five million refugees outside the country, who need immediate humanitarian assistance.

Brussels I, 2017

International donors pledged during the conference to provide 6 billion US dollars to support the Syrians in 2017 and 3.73 billion US dollars in multi-year pledges for the period between 2018 and 2020, and some international financial institutions announced at the time, providing about 30 billion dollars in soft loans.

The UN had announced its need for 8 billion US dollars to cover the needs of the Syrians in 2017.

 

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