Syria donor conference shuns Russia

Russia was not invited to a Brussels donor conference on Syria as fallout of its war in Ukraine continues to isolate the Kremlin.

The two-day conference ending on Tuesday (10 May) is normally co-hosted by the European Union and the United Nations.

“The United Nations has chosen not to co-host this last conference in light of our decision not to invite Russia,” Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, told reporters.

The UN has instead sent top emissaries like Filippo Grandi, who oversees the UNHCR refugee branch. Over 50 nations were involved, including 22 international organisations.

The two-day conference is the sixth organised in Brussels to help Syria, following some 11 years of war and conflict under the Russia-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Moscow’s exile from the Brussels-donor conference follows their expulsion in April from the UN Human Rights Council over reports of “gross and systematic violations and abuses of human rights” in Ukraine.

Its veto power in the UN Security Council has also complicated issues over accountability in Syria, as well as a wider international alliance on resolving the conflict.

At the security council last year, Russia threatened to scupper a vital humanitarian bridge from Turkey to Syria amid claims that the crossings in rebel-held territory violated Syria’s sovereignty.

It has now renewed the same threat, possibly leaving 3.4 million people living in Syria’s northwest Idlib region even more destitute.

Along with the fallout of Covid, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February has since had knock-on effects on protracted conflicts around the world.

This is also being felt in Syria, where some 90 percent of people are now living in poverty and another 60 percent are said to be suffering from food insecurity.

“The situation for Syrians has in many ways gotten worse,” said UNHCR’s Grandi, noting that well over $20bn in aid money has been channelled into Syria since 2016.

David Miliband of the New York-based International Rescue Committee (IRC) said Russia’s war in Ukraine is driving up food prices in Syria and shuffling resources away from fractured conflicts elsewhere.

“If you look around the world, there are 55 civil conflicts at the moment, eight of them have more than 1,000 battlefield deaths,” he said, in an interview with EUobserver.

A December study by the IRC further noted 275 million people in 20 countries need humanitarian relief.

“We diagnosed that there wasn’t only humanitarian failure, there was diplomatic and legal failure as well,” he said.

Calls for accountability over Bashar al-Assad’s brutality continue, including from the US.

“Assad has to take some responsibility, in fact all responsibility for what is happening on the ground in Syria,” said US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

“Russia is there [Syria] as well and that is another issue for us to engage on,” she said.

For its part, the EU says it supports a Syrian-led political solution in line with the 2015 UN security council resolution on Syria.

The aim of the donor conference is to shore billions in aid for poverty-stricken Syrians and Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon and Jordan.

The European Union has pledged €1.56bn for 2023. The money won’t go towards reconstruction, a condition that entails first getting rid of Assad. The total donor pledge amounted to €6.4bn, which includes loans and grants.

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