Geopolitics

Syria: One Thing Europe Can Do To Stop The Slaughter In Ghouta

Refusing to fund reconstruction efforts until attacks stop could be a solution to combat violence against civilians in war torn Syrian cities such as Ghouta and Alleppo.

A Syrian woman and her daughter walk past a destroyed house in the rebel-held Eastern Al-Ghouta province.
Dr. Ahmad Tarakji

East Ghouta is experiencing hell on earth. The European Union called last week for an immediate end to what it described as a "massacre" in the besieged Damascus suburbs, but violence is ongoing.

Hundreds of airstrikes, rockets and mortars have rained down nearly every day for the past two weeks in the densely populated area, where at least 390,000 civilians are living under siege without access to basic food and medical supplies. There have been at least 28 attacks on medical facilities and healthcare professionals. Medical staff at a Syrian American Medical Society-supported facility said doctors treated at least 29 people on Wednesday for symptoms of exposure to chlorine gas. At least 30,000 people inside Ghouta have been displaced, and an average of between 50 and 100 civilians have been killed every day.

As the death toll continues to rise, European governments should think twice about their plans to fund reconstruction in Syria and realize their current humanitarian promises are just empty words.

E.U. countries have long had conflicting positions on Syria. The U.K., France and Germany said they remained committed to supporting humanitarian needs throughout Syria, but would not fund any future rebuilding until the country is on the path of reconciliation, respecting human rights and democracy.

Others envision funding reconstruction now without those guarantees, as their voters are more concerned with issues like immigration, refugees and counter-terrorism. Consequently, they are willing to give in to the Syrian regime despite its attacks on civilians in Ghouta, despite its known history of violating human rights and the right of its citizens and despite knowing that the government will manipulate their funds to buy loyalty and advance its authoritarianism.

A large percentage of the Syrian people are living below the poverty line. Handing the financial resources to the current regime will only make Syrians more dependent on it as their only source of food and livelihood.

The Syrian regime has been able to manipulate the U.N.-Damascus operation to the point where U.N. teams admitted to having been blocked from providing food and medical supplies to Ghouta and other places for many years. Earlier this week, the World Health Organization said Syrian regime security removed or blocked 70 percent of the medical supplies from being transported in the convoy that arrived in Ghouta on Monday. This convoy delivered aid sufficient for less than 10 percent of the population.

Now is not the time to grant this brutal regime more funds. History, voters and the Syrian people will not overlook the E.U."s decision.

The Syrian Air Force targets medical facilities.

As president of SAMS, an organization that operates over 140 medical facilities inside Syria, including 16 in Ghouta, I communicate with doctors in the area almost hourly. Over the past years, we have offered to share the coordinates of our hospitals and a livestream from inside the facility with many UNSC members. We hoped one of these countries could protect our hospitals or at least establish an accountability process to investigate the deliberate targeting of these facilities. We only heard silence.

As a result of their inaction, the Syrian Air Force deliberately targets medical facilities. Ambulance drivers report being hunted by aerial drones that bomb them directly or track them until they arrive at hospitals, then bomb them. First responders are thus unable to evacuate patients in time, and some die from treatable injuries. Even if victims make it to the hospital, doctors might not be able to save them, either because it is too late or because four years of siege has left them without the necessary medical supplies.

Last week, I was told that an army general threatened Ghouta residents: "You won't find a rescuer. And if you do, you will be rescued with water like boiling oil. You'll be rescued with blood." I think he spoke the truth.

Where is the international community?

This is another Aleppo unfolding before the eyes of the world. SAMS once had extensive programming in Aleppo City as well, and there, too, we saw our hospitals bombed and medical workers besieged and hunted. Then and now, the eloquent condemnations of mass atrocities were uttered from a number of voices in the international community, without any concrete actions to back them up. Once the majority of hospitals were bombed out of service, more than 250,000 residents were displaced from Aleppo in a week.

I know from the Aleppo experience that words are not enough. The international community's empty statements show only lack of political will. Once again, I plead with the international community – on behalf of the humanitarian workers of Ghouta – to turn words into action by stopping the airstrikes, sanctioning the attackers and taking any reconstruction funds off the table until the war stops and civil society is empowered to implement the principles of peace and human rights.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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