No easy answers when it comes to helping the Syrian people - Article by Chris Doyle in Arab News, 21 February 2022
The Syrian conflict continues apace away from the headlines. The bombing of Idlib is intensifying and tensions remain high, not least because of the country’s massive economic meltdown. The political and diplomatic processes have zero momentum, stuck in the mire of international complacency.
Amid this atmosphere, UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen started to test the water for a renewed step-by-step process last December. Instead of trying a top-down approach to resolve the whole crisis, he has proposed a series of gradual steps to ease the situation — a rolling process whereby a move by one party is matched by an agreed step by another. Will this achieve anything?
Step-by-step approaches are not new in conflict resolution. They can make sense. By ameliorating the situation on the ground economically and building some degree of trust between conflicting parties, new political and diplomatic opportunities may present themselves.
For this to work, the crucial element is to establish, from the start, what the endgame is and to ensure that all parties are in agreement. It is fine to inch forward, but in what direction? Unless there is a clear target, the process could just make matters worse, entrenching forces that should be weakened and removed. This was a failing of the Oslo Accords, which stipulated an interim process of Israeli redeployments in the Occupied Territories but gave no ultimate target of an end to Israeli occupation or a viable Palestinian state. All that happened was that Israel was able to manipulate the situation to make the occupation even easier and cheaper to manage by pulling its forces out of Palestinian cities and instead surrounding them with checkpoints and other barriers.
Regarding Syria, most international actors have ditched the call for the Assad regime to go. What remains is the wording, on paper at least, in UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which envisaged “a Syrian-led political process,” facilitated by the UN, to establish “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance” under a new constitution leading to “free and fair elections… administered under supervision of the United Nations, to the satisfaction of the governance and to the highest international standards of transparency and accountability, with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to participate.”
The key aspect of Resolution 2254 is that Russia voted for it and the Syrian regime begrudgingly accepted it. However, it was passed six years ago and, in 2022, it does not look at all realistic. At best, Bashar Assad might pay lip service to accepting this as an end goal, but with every intention of derailing the process before it gets anywhere close to a democratic outcome.
The external Syrian opposition condemns any such step-by-step moves. However, the major actors, particularly the donor community, have long since given up on these groups, which have little to no influence on the ground.
What will happen is essentially a negotiation between the major donors and the Syrian regime and its backers.
Syria needs donor funds desperately. Its economy has been trashed by war, corruption and a combination of US and EU sanctions. The Syrian regime cannot provide for Syrians, including even basic services and food items such as bread. Russia does not have the funds to rebuild Syria, so it is actually encouraging the regime to find an accommodation with the donors. Moscow wants to see the donor powers providing early recovery support, albeit knowing that larger reconstruction programs are not on the cards.
Donor aid at present is almost solely focused on the humanitarian response. In essence, food parcels are fine but rebuilding schools is not. The short-sightedness of this is blatantly obvious. It is not in the donors’ interest to see the Syrian education system fail, but donors will not do anything if any project involves the Syrian Ministry of Education. They may provide food aid, but will they help rebuild irrigation canals, for example, that would allow farmers to grow crops? Once again, most funding is not possible if there is any official Syrian state involvement. Assisting small businesses would help grow the economy and provide jobs, while not overly benefiting the regime’s cronies.
Worst of all, the current donor actions actually reinforce the Syrian regime in a variety of ways. The regime insists that all transactions are in local currency at the distorted official rate, which is way below the black-market rate. A report last year showed this leads to the loss of about two-thirds of aid funds in the exchange rate transaction, and that the regime had benefited to the tune of about $100 million. International aid is now the regime’s biggest source of hard currency. Humanitarian aid is also largely unmonitored, in contrast to early recovery aid. Nobody does monitoring and evaluation on food aid. Parcels get handed out. Who checks who the beneficiaries are and which companies are involved in the procurement? Regime cronies are benefiting from the system and loyalist areas get a larger share of the aid. For early recovery projects, monitoring and evaluation is typically built in.
To carry out independent monitoring and evaluation, agencies need proper and regular access. The Syrian authorities are currently able to use the visa system to block entry into the country whenever it suits. This would need to change.
Can Pedersen concoct some form of acceptable arrangement for early recovery? Donors are divided, but any system must put the Syrian people first, not the regime. America’s position is to not stand in the way of any early recovery program and in November it did announce some loosening of the restrictions to allow nongovernmental organizations to engage in this area, but is not pushing it. France is obstinately opposed, whereas the likes of Norway and Switzerland are interested.
The other ingredient for any program to be successful is a degree of sanctions relief, not for regime figures and entities, but to allow civilian trade and to create the environment for banks to facilitate investment in Syria without the risks this currently entails. All of this would have to be carefully configured to ensure that the Syrian regime did not hoover up billions of dollars of aid, but it would be impossible to prevent at least a small portion of those funds making their way into crony hands.
Many Syrians will understandably flinch at the idea of the regime, with its record, procuring donor support. But this should not hide the reality of the situation as it stands, with the regime and its cronies fleecing the donor community for millions, while the Syrian people get nothing. These are tough decisions with no easy answers, but leaving the situation as it is cannot be the way forward, with so many people on the cusp of starvation.