The price of disengagement: Syria and the Brussels III conference

At the Brussels III fundraising conference, the question of how to help civilians without legitimizing the ascendant Assad regime looms large. 

Image by DFID-UK

This week’s “Supporting the future of Syria and the region” (Brussels III) conference hosted by the European Union provides an important opportunity to refocus international attention on the devastating Syrian conflict. The meeting has been primarily defined by humanitarian objectives that would make a substantive fundraising drive a successful outcome in and of itself.

Even as attendees of Brussels III work to raise important funding, critical questions about how government donors and organisations operate within the context of Assad’s ascendancy will loom large

At a deeper level, however, the conference is likely to shine a light on the growing tension between core humanitarian objectives and the political ambitions of states that both oppose the regime of Bashar al-Assad and have long been the key humanitarian donors to the Syrian crisis. With Assad’s victory in the conflict essentially assured, these states face a growing dilemma over how to channel much-needed support to civilians in Syria, most of whom now live in areas under regime control. For some, the natural conclusion of an emerging policy of “strategic patience” – which is premised on the idea that the regime could eventually be forced into a political compromise due to mounting domestic pressure – is the necessity of limiting external support to the Assad regime to an absolute minimum, an approach that has inevitable humanitarian ramifications.

After eight years of conflict, the situation in Syria remains desperate. While there has been a slowdown in armed fighting – at least momentarily, given the uncertain fate of north-eastern Syria and Idlib province – Syrians continue to face enormous humanitarian challenges. An estimated 13 million Syrians require humanitarian assistance; more than five million are experiencing a food crisis; six million are internally displaced; and around five million have taken refuge in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, placing these countries under huge strain.

The EU hopes that Brussels III, as the main annual Syria pledging conference, will raise an amount similar to the $8 billion pledged at last year’s event. This will cover both core humanitarian assistance and aid to Lebanon and Jordan, both of which could start forcing refugees to return home, despite clearly insecure conditions for returnees, without continued support.

But, even if they reach this target, several major donors – including the EU and key European member states led by France and the United Kingdom – face a growing challenge in connecting these humanitarian support channels with their long-term political goals. While these states accept that Assad will not relinquish power any time soon, they are still hoping that he will lose the peace. Towards this end, they have adopted a policy that involves a rejection of any steps that could help Assad consolidate his domestic position: maintaining a tight sanctions regime, withholding reconstruction support, and denying him the legitimising power of any political re-engagement. These actors hope that mounting internal political and economic pressure will eventually force the regime to accept political reforms, including those that lead to fair and free presidential elections.

Beyond the question of whether renewed internal pressure will draw meaningful political concessions out of a regime that fought a brutal civil war to avoid such steps, this approach inevitably has significant humanitarian implications. With cross-border aid flows to opposition-controlled areas – previously a primary focus of western aid support – drying up due to Assad’s reconquest of southern Syria and the increasing influence of extremist militias in Idlib, international donors are hesitant to channel increased assistance through the central government in Damascus. Of course, Assad’s history of exploiting aid and denying it to those most in need has long fed this sentiment. But the desire to ensure that external support does not project any sense of political normalisation, nor help Assad stabilise the country, is exacerbating this trend – despite donor governments’ claims that their humanitarian support will remain apolitical.

Some members of the humanitarian community focused on the immediate challenges facing Syrians on the ground are now urging international donors to be less restrictive with their funding, arguing that there is a pathway to providing some conflict-sensitive support that serves the needs of locals rather than those of the regime. Yet key international donors are tightening restrictions on their assistance. This involves maintaining a narrow definition of the core humanitarian support that they are willing to provide, which excludes post-conflict stabilisation measures such as the restoration of basic infrastructure with clear humanitarian linkages, such as water, educational, and medical facilities. This approach also feeds into the question of sanctions, which the West sees as a central component of its ability to eventually force Assad to compromise. Syria’s current fuel crisis – which has left millions of civilians without protection from a cold, painful winter and has led to a rise in food prices – was partly the result of recent US measures aimed at curtailing the country’s oil imports.

For some states, the knock-on effect of these policies is a price worth paying, given that they see Assad as the fundamental cause of Syria’s humanitarian crisis. Western officials point to the fact that the regime has always brutally manipulated aid for political ends and that it uses oil imports to fund its war machine. In this reading, the truly humanitarian response involves a continued, principled commitment to Assad’s eventual removal from power.

But for others – even putting aside Russia and several European states that are beginning to cautiously re-engage with Assad – this is an unacceptable price. In the context of the regime’s military victory and a pending shift towards a post-conflict environment, the approach risks hindering any external ability to provide much-needed humanitarian support to Syrians on the ground. It will involve steps that could contribute to maintaining – or, as with sanctions, possibly exacerbating – civilian suffering. Some of those sympathetic to this argument argue that, rather than focusing on unattainable political ambitions, Western donors should proactively tie their remaining influence to more realistic conditions aimed at improving the immediate environment Syrians face on the ground and strengthening Syrian society for the long-term challenges ahead. Moreover, though some believe that intensifying pressure on Assad will eventually lead to political compromises, there is a counter-argument that this will only reduce the possibility of alternative outcomes, providing Assad with an ongoing “war” narrative with which to justify his failures.

Even as attendees of Brussels III work to raise important funding, these critical questions about how government donors and the organisations they support operate within the context of Assad’s ascendancy will loom large over their conversations. Principled international actors now need to honestly wrestle with the issue of what this should mean for policy in the humanitarian sphere during the next phase of the country’s long-running tragedy.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Director, Middle East and North Africa programme

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