A Syria-focused conference ‘Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region’ that took place in Brussels timidly hinted that it was time to think about the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland as the 8-year-long war seems to be coming to an end. This is a major shift in EU policy. The previous warnings claimed that such a move was not well thought-through. However, a senior UN official said the need for food, supplies and funding was now on the rise, and also warned that an attack against the last rebel enclave would create “a humanitarian catastrophe”. As many as 12 million Syrians are either refugees or displaced within the country.
This year’s conference underlines Europe’s dilemma over efforts to isolate President Bashar al-Assad, as Washington is withdrawing its troops from Syria while the Syrian President is emerging as a victorious leader from the conflict, supported by Iran and Russia. The bloc has made long-term reconstruction support conditional on a UN-led peace process to put an end to the deadly conflict. However, as the UN-led process is stalled and the situation is being complicated by Arab neighbours trying to re-establish diplomatic ties, European governments are divided over whether and to what degree to rebuild the country.
“The US is pulling out and the Russians don’t have the money. That’s the context,” commented an EU official. The EU’s head of diplomacy earlier said that Syria was in limbo and thus at a risk of being caught in a “no war – no peace” situation. Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, commented that 2019 might be the first year since the war started “in which more people – both the internally displaced and refugees – return home than are newly displaced”.