Officials attend the third Brussels conference on "supporting future of Syria and the region" at the European Council in Brussels on Thursday. Emmanuel Dunand / AFP
BRUSSELS: International donors are gathering in Brussels hoping to drum up $9 billion to help Syrians uprooted by the country's bloody civil war, as European countries warn the money must not prop up President Bashar Al Assad.
"The conference should not only be a fundraising exercise. It must be accompanied by a political message on the conditionality of aid for reconstruction and the denial of impunity for Syrian leaders guilty of crimes," a European diplomat told the media.
EU Foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini (second right) attends the third Brussels conference on "supporting future of Syria and the region" at the European Council in Brussels on Thursday. Emmanuel Dunand / AFP
The UN estimates that $5.5 billion (4.4 billion euros) are needed to help the approximately 5.6 million Syrians forced to flee their country to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.
A further $3.3 billion is earmarked for populations inside Syria facing a humanitarian situation described by the Medecins du Monde aid agency as "unsustainable".
After two days of talks with humanitarian organisations, foreign ministers and senior UN and EU officials will meet on Thursday to hear financial pledges, with a total announced late afternoon.
"I believe we will have to work with the current regime during a transitional phase, because it is obvious that this regime is on the verge of a military success.
The UN and EU — jointly organising the conference —hope for a better return than at the last Brussels conference, in 2018, when pledges fell far short of expectations with $4.4 billion — less than half of the $9.1 billion the UN said was needed.
"There is a certain fatigue on the part of donors," a European official admitted on the eve of the conference, the third to be held in Brussels and the seventh such event since the conflict erupted in March 2011.
"If there is no money, nothing can be done," he warned.
The European Union and its member states accounted for three quarters of pledges last year but some big players -- including the United States -- did not announce how much they were donating.
Several donors committed themselves over three years at the 2018 conference. France promised 1.1 billion euros for the period 2018 to 2020. Commitments for 2019 and 2020 totalled $3.4 billion.
Assad's claim his country is suffering an "economic siege" and his denunciation of sanctions imposed by the EU and the United States has cast a shadow over the conference.
"There is no question of normalisation with the Damascus regime, which some EU countries would be willing to do," a European diplomat said.
"The fear is that international aid will be diverted... by the regime," the diplomat added.
It is "fundamental" that aid be distributed to the approximately five million Syrians displaced within the country and that it should reach the country's northeast, now freed from the Daesh group.
"There is a certain fatigue on the part of donors. If there is no money, nothing can be done.
"The risk is that these regions will be tempted to reach an arrangement with the regime to protect themselves from Turkey if they are abandoned," he said.
Rania Malki, the chief executive of Save the Children in Jordan, told the media that humanitarian organisations like her's were focused on making sure aid got through to those who need it.
"Although this is sometimes a challenging and very chaotic operating environment, NGOs have a well established procedure to help ensure donor funding is safeguarded from diversion by sanctioned entities," she told the media.
The EU has dropped its demand that Assad stand down as a precondition for help in reconstructing the country and is instead calling for a transition.
"I believe we will have to work with the current regime during a transitional phase, because it is obvious that this regime is on the verge of a military success," European Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn told AFP.
"I believe we must rid ourselves of this illusion that this will be possible without cooperation with the present regime."
"There is no question of normalisation with the Damascus regime, which some EU countries would be willing to do.
The European diplomat said western powers needed to be "realistic".
"There can be no regime change overnight, but we expect signs of a credible political transition process, and reconstruction assistance can be a lever on the regime," he said.
But several countries are insisting on another condition -- bringing war crimes suspects to book.
In 2018, seven countries -- Germany, France, United Kingdom, Sweden, Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium -- vowed that "not a single person responsible for the crimes committed in Syria will be able to escape justice".
Even as it fought Daesh, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces also came under threat from Damascus, which has sworn to retake the third of the country the SDF controls.
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