High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission Josep Borrell hoped that Tuesday’s donor conference on Syria will match last year’s pledge of 6 billion euros. In an extensive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, he said the Europeans have provided some 20 billion euros to Syria since the eruption of its crisis in 2011.
“The Brussels Conference is our most effective tool to maintain the world’s attention on the need to solve this conflict and to continue mobilizing the international community around a political solution,” he said. “We will continue to do our part.”
“As in previous Brussels Conferences on Syria, we have invited neither the regime nor the opposition. This might be reconsidered only and once a political process is firmly under way, including free elections as foreseen under UN Security Council resolution 2254,” he added.
“During all these years, our vital support has reached the Syrian people. The Syrian regime bears responsibility for the humanitarian, economic and healthcare crises in Syria. Not sanctions,” Borrell stated.
What do you expect of the donor conference in Brussels on June 30? How does this one differ from the previous ones?
Syria entered its tenth year of war. In the past nine years, half of the Syrian population had to flee their homes. Over half a million people died. An entire generation of Syrian children has only known war. They all deserve a better, peaceful future. The Brussels Conference is our most effective tool to maintain the world’s attention on the need to solve this conflict and to continue mobilizing the international community around a political solution as called for in UN Security Council resolution 2254. This is the only way to bring back lasting peace and stability for Syrians.
The Conference will be 2020’s main pledging event for Syria and the region, addressing the critical needs generated by the crisis, but it goes way beyond a donor conference. It is about continuing to support, politically and financially, Syria's neighbors and their people, who have shown extraordinary solidarity towards Syrian refugees. It has also grown into a unique opportunity for Syria’s civil society to engage in direct dialogue with the donor community and refugee-hosting countries. We could not gather people physically this year but we built a week of events where Syria’s youth, women and civil society organizations could interact with the international community. This is crucial, not only because they are the voices of the Syrian people but also because they hold the key to a better future for Syria.
A few factors raise the stakes for this year’s Conference. The grave deterioration of the economic and humanitarian situation, the recent military offensive from the part of the regime and its supporters, the destruction of civilian infrastructure, as well as the ongoing coronavirus crisis all further exacerbate already dire living conditions of the Syrians. They have had enough. Together with the United Nations, who play a crucial and leading role, we are sparing no efforts to remain at their side and live up to their hope for a brighter and peaceful future.
Last year’s conference provided aid worth 6.2 billion euros. Do you think that you would get the same pledges this year? Would you be able to respond to the United Nations appeal for humanitarian aid?
It is impossible to give a figure of likely pledging ahead of this year’s Conference. Amounts also vary from year to year, depending on donors’ approaches. We remain as ambitious as we are every year in support of the Syrian people and their host communities in neighboring countries. We are all working together, not least with our co-chair the United Nations, to ensure that Syrians across the whole of Syria, as well as refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, can continue receiving the support and protection of the international community over the coming year. That is the least they should expect and the least we can do.
As the European Union, we have provided over 20 billion euros since the beginning of the crisis in humanitarian, stabilization, development and economic assistance. We are the biggest donor for Syrian people. Two thirds of all the money spent to help Syrians and Syria’s neighbors came from the EU and its member states. And we will continue to do our part.
On top of the unprecedented humanitarian and economic crisis and all the suffering they have been going through, Syrians are now also enduring the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. This year’s Conference will also address this issue. As EU, we have been adapting our current assistance in response to this new and additional challenge, working hard to ensure that life-saving equipment reaches those in need in Syria.
Why was the Syrian government not invited to the Brussels conference?
As in previous Brussels Conferences on Syria, we have invited neither the regime nor the opposition. This might be reconsidered only and once a political process is firmly under way, including free elections as foreseen under UN Security Council resolution 2254.
The resolution clearly states that “the Syrian people will decide the future of Syria”. This is not just nice words for the EU, it is our compass. Nobody should hold their future hostage. This is why we are ensuring a meaningful input and a very large involvement of Syria’s civil society, with extensive online consultations held ahead of the Conference in Syria and in the region. Days of Dialogue also took place virtually on 22 and 23 June, consisting of discussions between civil society, ministers and senior decision-makers from refugee-hosting countries, the EU, the United Nations and other international partners. These contributions will feed in the Ministerial meeting of the Conference on 30 June. Syria’s civil society, its aid workers, its women and youth organizations are the future of the country.
How would you explain Russia's participation in the conference despite its criticism of not inviting the Syrian government?
As in previous years, all those members of the international community with influence in the conflict in Syria and that have expressed a will to support diplomatic efforts, in accordance with UN Security Council relevant resolutions, have been invited. In this regard, the EU welcomes the participation of the Russian Federation.
The conference comes after the European Union renewed economic sanctions against Damascus and the start of implementing the US Caesar Act. Does it have any effect on Brussels conference?
One of the key objectives of the Conference is for the international community to come together behind the UN-facilitated and Syrian-led political process. International pressure on Damascus to fully and genuinely participate in negotiations in the framework of UN Security Council resolution 2254, which is also done through sanctions, is of course part of this effort.
Moscow and Damascus say that these sanctions will harm the flow of the humanitarian and medical aid. What’s your reply?
EU sanctions are neither new nor aimed at the civilian population. They target individuals and entities that have been supporting the repression and the regime, financing them or benefitting from the war economy. They are designed not to impede the delivery of humanitarian and medical assistance, including crucial support in the current situation of the coronavirus pandemic. They do not prohibit the export of food, medicines or medical equipment. Even for potentially dangerous dual-use goods, for example chemicals also needed for pharmaceutical use, a number of exceptions are foreseen for humanitarian purposes.
The EU has been and remains the largest humanitarian donor to the Syria crisis with over 20 billion euros mobilized since 2011. During all these years, our vital support has reached the Syrian people.
The Syrian regime bears responsibility for the humanitarian, economic and healthcare crises in Syria. Not sanctions. On the contrary, it is mostly thanks to international assistance that healthcare, food, education or protection can still be delivered to people in need inside Syria. I could also add that trade has also continued throughout the war between the EU and Syria. We have never placed Syria under any kind of embargo.
What are the conditions that the European Union can lift the sanctions against Damascus?
EU sanctions concerning Syria have been in place since 9 May 2011 in response to the Syrian regime’s violent repression against its own people, including human rights violations, the use of live ammunition against peaceful protesters and the proliferation and use of chemical weapons. These were not imposed lightly. They are the consequence of grave human rights violations and potential war crimes and crimes against humanity, which must be accounted for.
Our list now includes 273 individuals and 70 entities. The goal of these measures is to put pressure on the Syrian regime to halt repression and negotiate a lasting political settlement of the Syrian crisis in line with UN Security Council resolution 2254, under UN auspices. Without a change of behavior and a constructive and genuine commitment to the political process, sanctions will remain. They are part and parcel of the EU’s wider approach to the Syria crisis. We also review them constantly to assess, inter alia, effects and developments on the ground.
EU has linked any contribution to the reconstruction of Syria with the success of the political process in Syria. What is your position on the reconstruction of Syria now?
The EU has been very clear on this. Europeans are willing to support the future of the Syria population and help them reconstruct their country but there are parameters for the EU's engagement. The EU will only participate in Syria's reconstruction when a genuine political transition in line with UN Security Council resolution 2254 is firmly underway. If this is not the case, all efforts will be in vain. Reconstruction requires minimal conditions in terms of stability, governance, public accountability, and representativeness of the governing authorities. Syria currently fulfils none of these criteria.
The EU’s reconstruction support cannot be invested in a context that would exacerbate pre-war inequalities and grievances and would not lead to reconciliation and peace building. The focus of reconstruction is not simply to rebuild infrastructure and housing – it is about restoring Syria’s social fabric, rebuilding trust and creating conditions that will mitigate or prevent the recurrence of violence, as well as responding to the grievances that sparked the conflict. Syrians deserve to live in a country where they all feel safe and protected by an impartial judiciary and by the rule of law and where human dignity is ensured.
The Brussels conference is co-chaired by the United Nations. What is your position on the efforts of the UN Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen?
Our position remains that only a political solution achieved in the framework of UN-brokered Geneva negotiations can guarantee a peaceful future for Syria. We fully support the work of the United Nations and of UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen. The Brussels Conferences aim at rallying the international community behind the UN efforts to advance a political solution.
The Conference will also back the calls by UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Special Envoy Pedersen towards a nationwide ceasefire and the release of detainees, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
Russia announced its willingness to negotiate with America to reach a political solution in Syria. What is your position on the American-Russian dialogue on Syria?
Any progress towards the political resolution of the Syria conflict is to be welcomed. We insist that there should be no compromise on certain principles. Both Russia and the US support UN Security Council resolution 2254 and any solution to the Syria conflict must be in line with that resolution. For us in the EU, there can be no normalization of relations with the Syrian regime, and by extension no commitment of international funding for reconstruction, until there is real engagement in a genuine, comprehensive and inclusive political process. Also, the return of refugees to Syria could only be supported by the international community only under the condition that they would be guaranteed to be safe, voluntary and dignified.
Do you think a US- Russia deal, will be enough? How does it look like for you?
Again, the future of Syria is for the Syrians to decide. This is what UN Security Council resolution 2254 says. The political negotiations on Syria's future must be Syrian-owned and Syrian-led. Both the US and Russia, as permanent members of the Security Council, have committed to support the genuine, comprehensive and inclusive political process set out in UN Security Council resolution 2254.
Currently, Syria has three spheres of influence: North East of Syria, North west, and the rest of the country. Does the European Union have the same vision for these zones?
The European Union will not waver in its commitment to the full sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of Syria. Precise governance arrangements within Syria are a matter for the Syrians to decide.
In 2021 there will be presidential election in Syria. How do you see that? How do you see Syria in one year from now?
Meaningful elections in Syria will be those held on the basis of a new Syrian Constitution, as foreseen in UN Security Council resolution 2254. They will mark the opening of a new chapter for the country and for its people.
If other elections are held before that, I encourage the Syrian regime to demonstrate its commitment to genuine political openness, for instance by making sure they are open to all Syrians, including those abroad, and that they are free and fair. However, in no way will this replace the need for real engagement in a political process and for the full implementation of UN Security Council resolution 2254.
How Syria will look a year from now will depend on the commitment of the regime to the implementation of that resolution as the only internationally accepted way forward. Not for our benefit, not for theirs or their supporters’, but for the benefit of all Syrians.