Billions pledged in Syria aid at ‘Brussels III’ conference, but few signs of political solution in sight

Officials pose for a photograph during the Brussels III Conference on "supporting the future of Syria and the region" at the European Council on March 14. Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP.

BRUSSELS/AMMAN: International donors pledged $6.75 billion in humanitarian assistance for Syria and neighboring countries at the “Brussels III” conference on Thursday, following days of talks that revealed a growing gulf between hopes for humanitarian response and a political solution meant to bring the conflict, now in its ninth year, to an end.

Pledges included €560 million ($637.6 million) from the European Union, $397 million from the US and another $300 million from Kuwait—all aimed at supporting neighboring countries and host communities where Syrian refugees have fled since 2011.

According to the United Nations, $3.3 billion is needed to fund aid programming within Syria, and another $5.5 billion to support neighboring countries—including Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey—hosting several million Syrian refugees.

The conference took place as the Syrian war enters its ninth year, with no clear political resolution in sight.

In a refrain often repeated over the course of the past week of meetings between EU and UN representatives, aid agencies and civil society, 2018 was a disastrous year for Syrian civilians—witnessing record displacements, and with no apparent durable solutions for millions of Syrians in neighboring countries.

A statement co-signed by 15 aid agencies, responding to Thursday’s pledges, called on the international community to ensure that “political and funding support translates into meaningful improvements for all Syrians.”

“The financial commitments of donors is critical, but so is the will to see these commitments transform into changes for refugees and vulnerable host communities,” the statement added, expressing disappointment at the lack of pledges made on resettlement of refugees.

In the conference’s closing remarks, following a day of negotiations and discussions among 50 representatives from donor states, UNOCHA’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Mark Lowcock, emphasized the need for much more than aid money.

“Humanitarian assistance, while it saves lives and reduces suffering, cannot solve the crisis in Syria, and we agree with that,” Lowcock said. “Resolving this crisis requires a political solution.”

However, a rapidly changing political environment in Syria—as the government consolidates its control on the back of significant military advances—could present problems for UN agencies, aid organizations as well as Syrians themselves.

Since last year’s “Brussels II” conference, when states and donors pledged some $4.4 billion in funds, the Syrian government has seized and reinstated control over all but one of the remaining rebel-held areas of the country—raising dire questions about the possibility of a political settlement, as well as the future of aid work there.

Mogherini: Sanctions will remain

Last spring, major pro-government offensives cleared the last rebel and hardline Islamist pockets of Damascus, before the Syrian government and its allies seized control of huge swathes of opposition territory in the southwest’s Daraa and Quneitra provinces in a massive aerial and ground offensive that was over in a matter of weeks.

Local aid programs and civil society organizations were forced to close, accept evacuation to the northwest, or simply go underground.

As a result of government advances and forcible evacuation deals imposed since 2016, well over a million Syrians have been internally displaced to the country’s opposition-held northwestern Idlib province. An internationally brokered ceasefire deal, meant to avoid a pro-government offensive on the northwest, still hangs in the balance.

However, the push this week to provide aid for Syrians dispersed in exile across the region stood in stark contrast to continuous restrictions on cash resources for development projects within government-held Syria itself, with no indication forthcoming from EU officials that sanctions against reconstruction efforts would be lifted anytime soon.

Much of that conditionality hinges on an elusive political settlement: major international donors, including the EU, hope that international pressure could eventually bring the Assad government round to talks and, ultimately, a political transition with elections.

Speaking with reporters in Brussels Wednesday afternoon prior to the pledging conference, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini reiterated the body’s stance that no EU aid would support reconstruction efforts without significant steps towards a political transition.

“This can be a very strong incentive for the Syrian parties to engage seriously and constructively, under UN leadership in a way that is fully Syrian-owned, to turn the page on this conflict and [to] put an end to it through a political process,” Mogherini said.

She dismissed assertions that the EU’s 28 member states were beginning to show cracks in their opposition to Assad and a near total blockade of funding for reconstruction efforts in Syria.

“The EU is fully united on this point,” she added.

In recent months, an increasing number of European populist governments have quietly begun to question the bloc’s continued commitment to a political solution in Syria.

Italian officials also previously engaged in face-to-face talks on European soil with Syrian intelligence chief Ali Mamlouk, a sanctioned Assad adviser who is wanted by French prosecutors for his role in human rights abuses in Syria since 2011. Rights groups claimed the meetings violated an EU-imposed travel ban against Mamlouk.

Dr. Muhammad Zaher al-Masri, a Syrian health expert representing a coalition of Syrian civil society groups at the conference, praised EU policymakers for appearing to tie future funding to Syria on progress within the political process.

“The EU is clear that there will be no reconstruction until there is a political transition that provides Syrians with their basic rights,” al-Masri told Syria Direct, “which is a point the EU is using against the regime and Russia.”

“They are now working on the political file,” he added.

Aid community voices concerns  

Prior to the conference, several major UN agencies and INGOs made their own recommendations for aid programming in Syria.

The recommendations are a usual part of the pomp and ceremony of the annual “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region” conference, hosted by the EU and UN since 2017, but also indicative of the changing priorities of different actors.

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, called on the Syrian government to improve access to “areas of return,” where refugees or internally displaced Syrians have gone home  after being displaced, so that the body could monitor returns and access returnees.

Carsten Hansen, Middle East regional director with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) criticized “restrictions imposed by the government on humanitarians,” but added that “several donor countries have been reluctant to scale up funding for programs managed from Damascus.”

However, international organizations are operating in a radically different Syria than prior to 2011.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), the largest aid organization in Syria which holds a growing monopoly over aid distribution in government territory, maintains that access will improve.

Speaking to Syria Direct on the sidelines of ministerial meetings on Thursday, SARC Secretary-General Khaled Erkoussi argued that UN agencies, INGOs as well as SARC “are all working together to ease those restrictions so we can have, in the end, more access.”

Erkoussi maintained that those restrictions “don’t come from SARC,” adding that the agency “works with INGOs to ease their jobs and their access.” He suggested that conditions in “newly accessible areas” of the country now held by the government were not always appropriate for aid workers.

“There are areas that are still under reconciliations,” Erkoussi added. “But, bit by bit, it’s enhancing.”

Aid workers and analysts, meanwhile, question just how independent SARC is. Unlike Red Crescent branches in neighboring countries, SARC was dissolved and reconstituted in the wake of the 1963 Baathist takeover, becoming one of the largest humanitarian aid organizations in Syria.

Humanitarian organizations looking to work in government-held areas of Syria generally must register with SARC in order to operate legally in the country.

Among other restrictions, humanitarian organizations areprohibited from undertaking field visits or instituting new programs in government-held areas without SARC’s permission. Evidence also points to close SARC coordination with the Syrian government, including security branches that have previously been the target of international sanctions.

In the conference’s closing remarks, Lowcock acknowledged that major issues remained in accessing millions of vulnerable people inside Syria.

"We did hear from many strains today, a call for unimpeded sustained access for all areas of Syria,” he said. “On behalf of the United Nations, I promise that we will do everything within our power to achieve exactly that.”

Returns remain ‘exception rather than the rule’

Despite the most recent funding pledges, much remains unresolved.

Hanging over the conference was the question of refugee returns, as well as longstanding debates over reconstruction and the missing victims of more than eight years of repression and violence.

Return remains a complex and highly controversial issue.

In a statement Thursday, UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi suggested that returns to Syria “will increase as the situation evolves, but large-scale movements back home will take some more time.”

“Returns must continue to be, as they have been so far, voluntary, well-informed and not shaped by political considerations,” Grandi added.  

Attendees from Syrian civil society groups, however, questioned what future conditions would need to be in place to guarantee any kind of safe returns, considering the lack of political progress and that the Syrian government stands accused of large-scale atrocities.

Human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni cited examples of Syrians who returned to their homes in recently recaptured Daraa, after fleeing a pro-government military campaign there last summer. Lured back under the promise of reconciliation agreements, al-Bunni said that civilians had been detained and forcibly disappeared, despite reassurances from authorities in Damascus.

“We saw that the government did not protect any of those people,” he said during a panel appearance at the conference. “How can we build solutions with the perpetrators of crimes against humanity and war crimes?”

Speaking on the same panel, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Richard Albright told attendees not to expect large-scale returns anytime soon.

“Security, rule of law, good governance: these are the kinds of things that drove many [Syrians] out eight years ago, and it’s no surprise that these are the same conditions that impede return today.”

“Returns will remain exceptions rather than the rule.”

Many Syrian civil society leaders in attendance expressed a strong desire to return, but indicated that returns were impossible in the current political environment, in which forced conscription and arbitrary arrests remain common occurrences in government-held areas, and tens of thousands have been forcibly disappeared.

The fate of many political detainees remains unclear, and was a recurrent theme at the conference.

“After eight years of what's been happening in Syria, I believe it's time for us to raise our voice,” said Amneh al-Khoulani from the Families for Freedom group that represents  the families of detainees in Syria. “We struggled so that the detainees issue...would be on the agenda at this conference. [And] it’s painful that we're celebrating that.”

“It's painful that our struggle is getting a humanitarian issue on the negotiations table,” she added.

Al-Bunni also warned about the risk of EU responses being restricted to “civil society, aid and humanitarian needs,” calling for a more robust, political response.

“I’m not just talking about one or two criminals, or that refugees are afraid of returning because of one or two criminals,” he told Syria Direct earlier this week. “I’m talking about the very legal infrastructure of the Syrian regime, which allows for those criminals to remain in place and continue committing crimes.”

“And if this legal infrastructure doesn’t come to an end, then it allows them to commit crimes again,” he added.

[Ed.: To read Syria Direct’s full interview with award-winning Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni, click here.]

Ammar Hamou and Barrett Limoges contributed to reporting from Brussels.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that pledges from the Brussels II Conference reached $8 billion, when the total was in fact $4.4 billion. Total funding for 2018 ultimately reached $6 billion, according to the UN.