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Syria, Geneva, London – three parallel universes

Chris Doyle

Published: Updated:

Approaching five years of the conflict, the international community is stuck in three parallel universes on Syria. The negotiators and mediators congregate in Geneva unable to agree even to preparatory talks leading to proximity talks to indirect talks let alone direct talks. The warmongers continue their remorseless attacks unabated in Syria, a combination of medieval sieges and modern day carpet bombing and scorched earth tactics. The donor countries flock to London, sadly not to fund the fruits of the political process but to underfund the barbaric consequences of the conflict.

What a message that this sends to Syrians - that the political, humanitarian and military tracks are so tragically divorced. What should be complementary processes, are still heading in opposite directions.

In London, on February 4 at least the donors can gather in one room but does this mean it will be any more successful? Around 70-80 governments will be represented at the Supporting Syria and the Region conference. This is the fourth donors’ pledging conference for Syria, the first three having been hosted in Kuwait.

The international community, including donor states, have consistently proved incapable or unwilling to address either the causes or symptoms of the Syria conflict.

Chris Doyle

With the bombardment continuing apace inside Syria and with little or no relief to the 400,000 living in besieged areas, the bill for long-term political failure is measured in billions. The U.N.'s total funding requirement is an eye-watering $8.96 billion up from $7.4bn in 2015. Last year it was 53% funded. Donor funding is hugely constrained not least with the oil price below the $30 dollar mark.

Many would argue that actually the donors have not been nearly generous enough. Jan Egeland, Secretary General, Norwegian Refugee Council has written that the U.S. and EU gave only $5 per capita to Syrians last year. His argument is that the U.N. funding requirement is the bare minimum. Limping over the halfway mark will be a sign of acute failure. Many of those states professing to be the most supportive of Syrians have failed to deliver a fair share according toresearch by Oxfam. France for example managed a derisory 45% of its fair share in 2015.

But billions of dollars of aid is not the sole requirement.

Political will

Firstly, the political will to end the conflict is still lacking. Above all no major power is prepared to confront and face down the Russians. Putin seems convinced that there is a military solution to Syria or at least that the opposition groups will be compelled whatever Pax Russia he is prepared to ordain.

The Russian bombing is now the major engine behind the continued refugee exodus.

Secondly, the scale and nature of the response has to change. There has to be a transformational new deal for refugees and host countries. The focus of the conference indicates that donors have finally started to accept that stop gap funding is not enough. It has to include long term developmental assistance not least for protection, education and livelihoods. Reconstruction planning must also feature as planning cannot wait to the end of fighting.

That the donors’ conference is in Europe, or on the periphery as half of Britain seems to believe is perhaps appropriate. Many argue that hitherto, such conferences were to prevent and protect the Middle East from the spill over from the conflict. The political imperative of the London donors’ conference appears to many to be to stem the flow of Syrian refugees into Europe and elsewhere by giving huge sums of aid to the key transit countries. European states have put up walls, ripped up their asylum rules and torn down the welcome signs, anything to limit the numbers.

This is unfair on many donor governments but it does reflect positions of states desperate to keep refugees and migrants out. The premise that the transit countries can handle another twelve months of refugee influx solely on additional aid is misplaced. Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon all require investment in infrastructure and public services. A key focus of the conference is on providing livelihoods but even with huge investment these states will not be able to

The refugees will keep on coming not least as long as the conflict and the bombing continues. Those hoping that dollops of aid with stop this or even control it may be disappointed. European states must provide safe and legal routes into Europe especially for the most vulnerable refugees.

Syria’s neighbours require massive investment to continue to act as primary refugee hosts. Will donors agree to fund significant upgrading of public services? Education stands out as a key priority with 2.1 million children out of school inside Syria and with 1.4 million Syrian refugee children lacking proper schooling.

The international community, including donor states, have consistently proved incapable or unwilling to address either the causes or symptoms of the Syria conflict.

It is time that state actors turned more to those they have neglected for too long, Syrians and Syrian civil society. The three previous pledging conferences in Kuwait lacked a civil society component. London at least has. Although organised late in the day, a half day civil society conference on the 3rdFebruary allowed a degree of influence on the main donor conference.

From the outset of the Syria crisis, civil society organizations (CSOs) inside Syria have typically proven to be the most positive and effective inside the country achieving extraordinary results on such limited means. CSOs are viewed with immense distrust by many of the actors in the conflict from the Syrian regime to many regional states and international actors, basically those who do not wish to see a democratic transition in Syria. The civil society conference’s communique called for the end of limitations that CSOs face in acquiring legal status in neighbouring countries and beyond.

Civil society

Even in the “West”, support for Syrian civil society has been lukewarm, its representatives rarely consulted. Above all, Syrian CSO efforts have been systematically hampered by the inability to use banking facilities with many Syrian groups having their accounts closed and loans denied. No surprises then that the civil society conference communique openly pushing for EU and U.S. sanctions reform.

Syrian civil society actors are the closest embodiment of the protests of 2011 that called for freedom and dignity. One lamented that “Peace now is replacing democracy" as an aim as far as the international community was concerned. Whilst appreciative of international generosity, many called for a real true, equal partnership between donors, international agencies and Syrian organisations.

Civil society may not have all the answers but they are closer to the actual events and trends on the ground. But one things stands out – for the most part they have adopted a truly inclusive approach that puts Syrians first. There is genuine and fervent desire not just to end the conflict but develop Syria as well. All too often the same cannot be said for the international community.

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Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.