Syria’s future will take centre stage in Brussels on Tuesday as 50 countries hold talks in the grim shadow of the civil war’s 10th anniversary.
The fifth such annual conference, co-chaired by the EU and UN, is the latest international effort to relieve a shattering conflict that has sent shockwaves through the Middle East and into Europe.
Tuesday’s online gathering of foreign ministers will underscore Europe’s prominent role in providing humanitarian aid to Syria — and highlight its marginalisation in political efforts to resolve the conflict. President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal dictatorship, backed by Russia and Iran, has crushed anti-regime opposition in most of the country. But resistance persists and the country has become a battleground for international powers.
The Brussels Syria conference began in 2017 after an influx of Syrian refugees in 2015-16 sparked a political crisis in the EU. Its stated aims are “supporting the Syrian people” and mobilising the international community for a “comprehensive and credible political solution to the Syria conflict”.
It will be the biggest pledging event this year for Syria, where the war is estimated to have killed half a million people and displaced half the population. One of the conference’s main focuses will be political and financial aid for countries that host millions of Syrian refugees, notably Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
The ambitions to secure peace and rebuild the country are much trickier. The conundrum for the EU is that it does not want its aid to benefit the Assad regime.
There are also divisions between member states. Some countries, notably Hungary, have maintained or even modestly increased their diplomatic representation in Damascus. But big EU member states, including France and Germany, are opposed to diplomatic moves that would “normalise” the Syrian dictatorship.
Some observers have argued that there is a slim hope Assad and his foreign backers could be forced into a political compromise. They say the regime knows it can’t win a total victory and is desperate for reconstruction money. Russia could also be tempted if it sees a potential exit strategy.
But few see the EU as a player in any such negotiation. Moscow, Tehran, Ankara and — perhaps — the new administration in Washington would have much more sway.
It would leave the EU once again struggling for leverage in a conflict in its greater neighbourhood. It would also be another sign of the desperate position of most Syrians, a decade after the revolt against tyranny began.
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Day two of the Brussels Syria conference will feature Josep Borrell, EU foreign policy chief, and Oliver Varhelyi, commissioner for enlargement policy.
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