By: Michael PeelSource: Financial Times10 Jan, 2018
A top Russian diplomat has urged the EU to launch reconstruction efforts in Syria within months, escalating a row over who should foot the bill for rebuilding the nation as President Bashar al-Assad reasserts his control.
Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s representative to the EU, told the Financial Times that European states would “bear the responsibility” if they failed to recognise that it was “high time” to back a programme likely to cost “dozens of billions” of euros.
His comments are part of Moscow’s efforts to exploit Europe’s growing dilemma over how it can spend money to stem the flow of Syrian refugees without appearing to boost the regime in Damascus.
The tensions over the issue have been rising as Moscow, which backs the Syrian government, has gained increasing sway over the peace process to end the near seven-year conflict.
European diplomats acknowledge the potential for divisions in the bloc over Syria
. Countries hosting millions of Syrians, such as Turkey and Lebanon, have been pressing the EU to help ease their refugee burdens.
But European officials bristle at what they see as attempts by Moscow to force Europe to pick up the tab for Russia, whose fighter jets took part in the bombardment of rebel-held areas such as Aleppo.
Syrian activists said last week that Russian warplanes were involved in bombing Eastern Ghouta, a besieged rebel-controlled area near Damascus, where recent fighting has killed dozens of people.
Russia intervened militarily in the conflict in 2015 and tilted the balance of the war in the Syrian government’s favour as the rebels were driven from their urban strongholds.
Moscow is now keen to secure a political process and halt its military operations in the Arab nation.
President Vladimir Putin made an unexpected visit to the country last month to declare Russia’s mission accomplished. But big EU states have insisted reconstruction funding will only flow after there is a peace agreement with a political transition process in place.
“At the moment it’s in the EU’s interests to increase pressure on Russia by not putting any money in,” said one European diplomat familiar with Syria policy.
“The fact that the Russians are getting upset shows that the pressure is beginning to tell.
” The EU says it and its members are by far the largest donors of Syrian crisis relief so far, with more than €10bn allocated in humanitarian and development assistance.
It says it is also “preparing the ground for the international community to start looking into the postwar reconstruction of Syria”.
Still, Mr Chizhov said European states should be moving beyond just providing humanitarian assistance.
“The EU wants to see political transition first, but in the meantime people are suffering,” he said.
“So we believe that it’s high time to go beyond staple humanitarian aid to something more substantial.
” Mr Chizhov said he saw “signs of more realism” that made him hopeful the EU would agree to put in reconstruction funds at a conference on Syria due to be staged in Brussels this spring.
Mr Chizhov also conceded that Russia would need to offer finance for rebuilding Syria, although he said Moscow had not yet suggested a figure.
Asked what would happen if the EU did not pledge any reconstruction money, he said: “Then they will bear the responsibility for that. We will co-ordinate with other potential players. Hypothetically the Iranians might say: ‘We are donating a certain amount of money for reconstruction.
’ What would Britain say, what would the EU say?” Iran is the other main foreign backer of the Assad regime.
Russia has also joined Iran and Turkey to broker peace talks separate from the official UN-led process in Geneva, which has made little progress.
Syrian opposition activists fear allocating European funds to areas such as four “de-escalation zones” set up by Russia, Turkey and Iran would boost the Assad regime economically and help normalize its international relations.