At a Brussels conference, EU countries have pledged billions of dollars in more aid money for Syrian civilians. Yet those same states were unable to come up with funds to investigate possible war crimes in the country.
The European Union and its member states pledged $6 billion (5.6 billion euros) in new funding for Syria's humanitarian needs on Wednesday at the EU-hosted "Future of Syria" conference. EU Humanitarian Assistance Commissioner Christos Stylianides announced the two-day total, of which $1.3 billion comes from the EU itself.
Stylianides noted the conference was held in the shadow of the latest apparent gas attack against Syrian civilians, the images of gasping children in Idlib providing a sickening illustration that years of talking about a solution in Syria have been ineffective in stopping the war. Still, Stylianides said, wrapping up the meeting, "in the face of atrocities such as this one... our conference is sending a powerful message: We are not letting down the people of Syria."
The chemical assault, believed to be the third this month alone in Syria, left many of the diplomats, activists and international officials struggling to express their outrage strongly enough, especially after Russia rejected a draft resolution at the United Nations Security Council that would have condemned the deadly incident.
Assad government blamed
Though no one can say with certainty yet who launched the attack, the fact that groups including Medicins Sans Frontieres say the substance appears to be a nerve agent led many speakers, including British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, to skip the skepticism about its source and blame President Bashar al-Assad's government. "All the evidence that I have seen points to the responsibility of the Assad regime," he said, calling it a "horrific attack." He reiterated the British government's demand that Assad leave office. "Of the 400,000 people who are estimated to have been killed in Syria," Johnson said, "he is responsible for the vast majority of that butcher's bill." He noted that gas attacks have been illegal since 1925, when the passage of the Geneva Protocol banned the use of "asphyxiating, poisonous, gases and all comparable material in warfare."
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel didn't name names but his target was clear. "There are real war criminals in the country who are ruthless enough to use barbaric acts of violence against defenseless citizens," Gabriel said. Germany announced some $1.2 billion in new funding at the conference, but Gabriel said that money could not be used on rebuilding Syrian infrastructure unless and until Assad is no longer in power. "Whatever we do, however important the fight against Daesh may be, for us as Germans it's crystal clear there cannot exist any cooperation with those who are responsible for these war crimes," he said, using the Arabic-language acronym for the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) militant group.
But activists say if the international community was serious about removing the current impunity for such deadly behavior, governments would have come up with more money for a newly-created tool for investigating Syrian war crimes. The so-called "International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism," a Liechtenstein-backed initiative which would formalize the gathering and processing of war crimes evidence, was approved by the United Nations General Assembly in December but somehow the $13 million it needs to get off the ground has not been contributed.
Investigation mechanism needs money
Human Rights Watch's (HRW) Lotte Leicht was watching pledges trickle in at the conference and wondering how all the diplomats could demand "accountability" for the repeated attacks on Syrian civilians but not fund this relatively low-budget effort to punish those responsible.
European governments including Denmark, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands have given a million dollars to the initiative, but a source from Liechtenstein's government confirms they didn't get enough pledges at this conference.
"We constantly see these very grave violations of international law and we constantly see the suffering and we then sort of retreat and say 'well that's the new normal in Syria,'" Leicht explained to DW. "And that is what we simply cannot accept because what we are seeing is a complete erosion of international law. That means we're setting precedents for for how wars will be fought in the future and that will be on the back of civilians with complete disrespect for international standards."
Assaad Al Achi, executive director of the Turkey-based Syrian civil-society group Baytna, was in Brussels for the talks and had hoped for better. Al Achi said the new money will serve to convey the message from international community that "we still care about putting Syria back together."
But Al Achi says Assad is sending a message too. Assuming the Syrian president is behind the chemical attack, which Al Achi acknowledges has not yet been proven, he says: "Assad is sending a message to the international community that 'I don't care about your reconstruction and as long as I'm backed by Iran and Russia I will continue my killing machine.'"
Al Achi says that message has now been delivered "in Syrian lives."
"What kind of terrible message is that not only to the victims of these horrendous crimes and their loved ones but particularly to the perpetrators?" asks HRW's Leicht. She urges Europe to reach deeper into its pockets, explaining that this is one time where Europeans wouldn't have to depend on the whims of either Washington or Moscow to make a real difference for Syrian civilians.