High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell stressed that the political leadership in Damascus must take clear steps to “end the repression of the Syrian people.”
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, he added that the regime must engage “meaningfully” in UN-led negotiations to make a clear decision “to change the way Syria is governed and the way it relates to the rest of the world” before a conference on its reconstruction can be held.
What do you expect of the donor conference in Brussels on March 30 at the political and economic levels? Does Covid-19 affect your expectations?
After ten years of conflict in Syria, the international community cannot waver in its focus on the need for a political solution. The European Union calls on all international actors with influence in the Syrian crisis to join forces at the conference in Brussels on March 30 to reaffirm and consolidate strong support for a political solution in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The conference will ensure that Syria remains at the very top of the international agenda.
My aim is that the international community renews its political and financial support not just for the Syrian people – whether they be refugees or still in Syria – but also for Syria’s neighbors, particularly Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, as well as Egypt and Iraq.
This conference serves as the main pledging event for Syria and the region in 2021, and a central aim is to ensure that United Nations’ appeal is met as fully as possible – especially considering the extra challenge of the pandemic.
Since the start of the conflict in 2011, the EU including its member states have contributed almost €25 billion to meet the needs arising from the conflict in Syria, in Syria itself and in the wider region. Around two thirds of the pledges made at successive conferences come from the EU.
The Brussels conference is being held on the 10th anniversary of the Syrian uprising. When do you think the donors conferences to rebuild Syria will be held? What is your position on the reconstruction of Syria now?
I look forward to the day when a conference for the reconstruction of Syria can be organized. Its timing, however, depends on the actions first and foremost of the Syrian regime. We call upon that regime to change its behavior. It is up to the leadership in Damascus to make the clear and unambiguous decision to end the repression of the Syrian people, to engage meaningfully in UN-led negotiations; in short, to make a clear decision to change the way Syria is governed and the way it relates to the rest of the world – before such a conference can take place.
Syria is set to hold presidential elections in a few months. How do you view these elections? Will the EU normalize relations with Damascus after that?
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.
Under the current circumstances of conflict and since the regime has failed to engage meaningfully in UN-led negotiations, it is not feasible that elections organized by the Syrian regime - such as presidential elections later this year - can be carried out in accordance with these criteria and UN Security Council Resolution 2254. These presidential elections cannot therefore lead to any measure of normalization with the regime. Consequently, we have urged other members of the international community, and the wider region, to also avoid any such normalization.
Did you invite Russia to the conference? How can you work with Russia on Syria while relations are at a low point?
The Russian Federation has been invited to each and every Brussels conference on Syria, and is always welcome. It is no secret that relations between Russia and the European Union are not easy at present. This should not prevent us, however, from exchanging views on global matters of mutual concern, nor to work towards solutions when we can. As an example, we have good cooperation within the Middle East Quartet.
The conference is being held after the European Union renewed economic sanctions against Damascus and one year after the implementation of the Caesar Act. Do they have any effect on the Brussels conference? Moscow and Damascus say that these sanctions will harm the flow of the humanitarian and medical aid. What do you say?
EU sanctions in place regarding Syria are designed to avoid impeding the supply of humanitarian assistance. This includes efforts in the global fight against the recent Covid-19 pandemic. Consequently, the export of food, medicines or medical equipment, such as respirators and ventilators, are not subject to EU sanctions. Furthermore, a number of specific exceptions are foreseen for humanitarian purposes.
Let us not forget the larger picture: the Syrian regime is largely responsible for the humanitarian suffering of the Syrian people. The regime has deliberately denied humanitarian assistance to areas of Syria as part of its strategy in this conflict. Regime behavior has led to the humanitarian crisis – not sanctions. This is a point that the EU will make quite clearly at the conference should there be any further attempt to blame sanctions for humanitarian suffering.
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 UNSC Resolution 2254 under UN auspices. They are a response to widespread and systematic violations by the regime of human rights and of international humanitarian law. The Syrian regime needs to adopt a clear change of behavior before the lifting of EU sanctions can be contemplated.
The Brussels conference is being co-chaired by the United Nations. What is your position on the efforts of UN Special Envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, and the progress of the Constitutional Committee? What do you think of Pedersen’s proposal to set up a new contact group on Syria?
The EU will continue to support UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen in his tireless efforts to advance all aspects of resolution 2254 in a comprehensive approach. It is important that progress is achieved in the Constitutional Committee as it should serve as a door-opener to advance on other aspects of that Resolution. We are aware that Pedersen is also trying to advance on these other aspects, and support him in these efforts also. The EU believes that the fate of missing persons and those detained should be addressed with particular urgency as a matter of immense concern to families throughout Syria, and I encourage the Special Envoy in his efforts in this direction.
Regarding Special Envoy Pedersen’s appeal for constructive international engagement on Syria, I also agree with this. The gathering in Brussels on March 30 is a practical example of the commitment of the European Union to enhancing dialogue among those actors with influence in the Syrian crisis.
Russia announced its willingness to negotiate with the United States to reach a political solution in Syria. Is that possible these days? What is your position on the American-Russian dialogue on Syria?
It is true that US-Russia negotiations have played an important role on the Syria file in the past, such as those between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov. Whether such negotiations are possible today you would need to ask them. What we are trying to do with the Brussels conference is to bring together all key actors and donors precisely to encourage dialogue and progress towards a political solution. The European Union stands ready to engage and to help where we can, as Syria is an issue of primary importance to us.
Currently, Syria has three spheres of influence: in the northeast, northwest and the rest of the country. Does the European Union have the same vision for these zones?
Yes, the EU has the same vision for each of zone: the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian state. Moreover, the political solution to be reached in the framework of resolution 2254 for the future of Syria must be Syrian-led and Syrian-owned.