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A large part of Syria lies in ruins. On the photo: Aleppo. © Shutterstock
In March 2011, mass protests took place in Syria. The population demanded more democracy from its authoritarian leader Bashar al-Sadat. A prolonged drought between 2006 and 2010 also contributed to latent discontent. After all, hundreds of thousands of peasant families had no other option but to migrate to slums in the cities.
Bloody civil war
Soon, the unrest grew into a bloody civil war, which continues to this day. Syria is experiencing an unmitigated humanitarian catastrophe with, to date, 500,000 dead, 6 million internally displaced and 5 million people fleeing abroad. Thirteen million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance. The COVID-19 pandemic is only making the situation worse.
The conflict in Syria is being driven by a jumble of domestic and foreign interests that are difficult to untangle. The Muslim extremist group Daesh has lost much of its power, but remains active. Russia sees an opportunity to establish itself as a regional power. Iran is primarily looking for an Arab ally to ensure its passage to the Mediterranean and Hezbollah (in Lebanon). Israel, for its part, wants to curb Iran's influence. Turkey's main concern is stopping the refugees and creating a buffer against the Kurds. This is just to name a few examples. It is clear that the security impact of the conflict is enormous and goes beyond the purely regional aspects.
This is why the EU is organising the 5th Syria conference (virtually) in Brussels on 29-30 March 2021. Aim: to keep the Syrian conflict on the international agenda and raise funds. In doing so, the conference is giving full support to the UN and the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, to negotiate a political solution. On 29 March – Dialogue Day – the EU and the UN will engage with Syrian civil society and countries receiving refugees.
Syria has 6 million internally displaced persons. On the photo: Atma refugee camp, near the Turkish border. © Shutterstock
18 million euros and more
Belgium will actively participate in the conference. Our country will announce 18 million euros in humanitarian aid, for example. Of this, 11 million euros will go to Syria itself and 7 million euros to neighbouring countries.
Belgium is also strongly committed to so-called ‘flexible funds’. These are funds that are not strictly linked to a specific aid campaign; the recipient organisation is free to decide where to put the money. Aid organisations such as the World Food Programme greatly appreciate this approach, because it enables them to respond better to urgent needs. No doubt some of this flexible funding will also go to the Syria crisis. These amounts are in addition to the 18 million euros mentioned above. Moreover, additional project funding may come later this year.
Belgium will also thank neighbouring countries for hosting Syrian refugees. For Belgium, wider access to Syria for humanitarian organisations is essential. Otherwise, too many needy people will be left to fend for themselves. During its mandate in the UN Security Council (2019-2020), our country has been strongly pushing for humanitarian access to Syria and drawing attention to the plight of children. Other priorities for Belgium are accountability, the role of civil society and the fight against Daesh.
Ten years of conflict have left Syrian society exhausted – at best, it may take another generation for it to fully recover. Yet the horrific conflict is far from extinguished and could flare up again at any time.
For Belgium, it is in any case clear that there is no military solution to the conflict. Only a political solution can bring lasting peace. This is why our country is seeking to give UN Envoy Pedersen even more support. New strategies are needed to break the deadlock. For example, all the key players – certainly the US and Russia – need to be around the table. Along with the EU and the UN, our country is determined to continue working for a sustainable solution to the Syrian tragedy.