BERLIN/DAMASCUS (April 26) – Berlin and the EU are seeking to use Syria’s hardships for leverage to gain influence on that country’s political development. Berlin will provide humanitarian aid for the Syrian population, German Foreign Minster Heiko Maas announced at yesterday’s Syria conference in Brussels – aid that is also seen as helpful in preventing a new wave of mass migration to the EU. However, aid for the country’s reconstruction will only be granted, if Damascus makes political concessions, Maas declared. Berlin considers reconstruction aid a promising lever, because Syria, most likely, will not be able to raise the more than €200 billion necessary, and its closest partners, Russia and Iran are low on funds due to the western economic sanctions. Experts warn that, for example, in Raqqa, under the control of Syrian opposition forces and the USA, another insurgency could develop should reconstruction continue to be delayed. A US journalist calls Raqqa’s level of destruction the worst he has ever seen in the Middle East.
A Humanitarian Catastrophe
Berlin and the EU are seeking to use Syria’s hardships for leverage to gain influence on that country’s political development, as is evidenced in statements by leading politicians at the Syria Conference hosted by the UN and the EU, which ended in Brussels yesterday. As in the first Brussels Syria Conference in April 2017, funds were also raised at this conference for humanitarian aid for the Syrian population.
According to the United Nations, 13.1 million Syrians depend on aid, 6.1 million are internally displaced and 5.5 million have fled to neighbouring countries (mainly to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey). Nearly 80 per cent of the Syrian population lives below the poverty line, 9.4 million are dependant on food aid. There are more than 400,000 casualties and at least 1.2 million wounded. Some regions of Syria have already been hard hit since the war escalated in 2012. At that time, the United Nations initiated its first major relief efforts for the country. Berlin and the EU began providing significant amounts of aid only in 2017, mainly in reaction to the mass exodus in 2015 and 2016. Humanitarian aid can best deter people from trying to flee to prosperous EU metropolis. Yesterday Berlin provided a billion euros.
Reconstruction as lever
Like last year, Berlin and Brussels emphasized that they are only providing humanitarian aid – the urgently needed aid for reconstruction, however, will depend on the fulfillment of political preconditions. Negotiations on ending the Syrian war should be reopened in Geneva under the auspices of the United Nations and Berlin is also demanding an early removal of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Both of these demands are aimed at reducing Russia’s influence in the Middle East.
When the Geneva talks stalled last year due to the obstruction by the Western countries and the opposition groups they support, Moscow initiated its own format for negotiations in Astana. With the participation of Iran and Turkey – excluding the EU – the Astana format has already had a series of successes.
Yesterday, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini declared in Brussels, the EU will only “participate in Syria’s reconstruction, if there is a political process under the aegis of the United Nations.” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas seconded, declaring, “We will participate in the reconstruction, only if there is a political solution.”
Reconstruction is seen as the appropriate lever because it is completely unclear how Syria can raise the more than €200 billion, experts believe necessary. Syria has been devastated by the war and dramatically impoverished. With its harsh sanctions, the West is exerting pressure on the Russian and Iranian state budgets and is politically – and occasionally even (massively) militarily -threatening both countries.
Still in ruins
Reports from the former IS capital Raqqa, illustrate why Berlin’s stalling tactic for Syria’s reconstruction will not only cause the Syrian population more suffering, but is also an additional political danger. One reason why the situation in Raqqa is particularly significant is that the city was not recaptured by the Syrian and Russian military forces, but by the Syrian-Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the US military and the anti-IS coalition – including Bundeswehr participation with reconnaissance and refueling aircraft. Raqqa, in spite of massive political resistance from the Syrian government, is still in the hands of the SDF/USA forces.
Reconstruction is hardly advancing because the Kurds are focused on an escalating conflict with Turkey in northwestern Syria and the US has lost interest since defeating IS. Other than a generator here or there, there is no electricity and access to water is only in few places. It is reported  that half a year since the city was recaptured, numerous corpses are still buried under the rubble; clearing the mines is delayed; and the means and equipment needed for reconstruction are lacking. Local officials warn that a lack of progress leads to frustration and could drive sectors of the population to launch another insurgency. According to an expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), if reconstruction does not materialize, the SDF and the USA could lose all support in a few months. Representing a typical opinion, a resident is quoted, “We suffered under IS, but we’re suffering more from this American liberation.”
That statement also refers to the how Raqqa had been liberated from the IS. As Tamer El-Ghobashy, Baghdad bureau chief of The Washington Post reports after his visit to Raqqa, “there are very, very few parts of the city that are not heavily impacted.” He had covered quite a few battles in the Middle East – from Gaza to Iraq, but he has “never quite seen this level of destruction as we see in Raqqa.” The destruction can not be attributed to the IS but “clearly to firepower that came from the Americans, the British and the French” when they were recapturing the city.
More than 11,000 buildings were destroyed, severely damaged or moderately damaged in a city of about 400,000 residents. According to the estimates of the Airwars NGO (which is occasionally accused of underestimating), the Anti-IS Coalition bombarded Raqqa with an estimated 20,000 munitions during the five-month operation – more than US forces in Afghanistan during all of last year. Whereas the United States admits to 24 civilian casualties of the their air strikes, Airwars puts the number closer to 1,400. U.S. commanders have described the battle for Raqqa last year as some of the most intense urban combat since World War II, El-Ghobashy noted.
Precision weaponry fallacy
Because of the German media corporations and the public television networks’ correspondents’ double standards, the brutality of the combat to retake Raqqa was hardly mentioned, even though – or because – the Bundeswehr was participating with reconnaissance and refueling aircraft. Reports on war destruction in Syria are usually illustrated with photos of Aleppo. The Springer Publishing Company Media had even claimed that the Syrian-Russian combat to retake Aleppo was “worse than Auschwitz.” (german-foreign-policy.com reported.)
Members of the US military are drawing a parallel between the battles over Aleppo, Raqqa and Mosul. In view of the equally devastating damage on all three battlefields, they are calling for finally exposing “precision” weaponry – that supposedly spare civilian lives – a “fallacy.” German media, however, are carefully indulgent of the murderous combat of the western powers, to focus on the assumed next theatre of the Syrian-Russian offensive – Idlib.
Al Qaeda’s new safe haven
The governorate of Idlib is the last major area of Syria still under jihadi control. It is ruled by the Hayat Tahrir al Sham militia, an alliance run by a successor organization of the Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda subsidiary. Already last August, the US special representative for the anti-IS coalition, Brett McGurk, was quoted saying that Idlib is “the largest safe haven for al Qaeda since 9/11.” The Al Qaeda subsidiary’s control over the governorate has been reinforced since. Referring to the intensification of combat in the region, last Tuesday, UN Special Envoy to Syria, Steffan de Mistura declared in Brussels that “Idlib is the greatest new challenge to be faced.” Because Syria and Russia – and not the western powers – are the ones combating the jihadis, a new wave of outraged reporting can be expected in the western media.
 EU knüpft Wiederaufbauhilfe für Syrien an Politikwechsel. zeit.de 25.04.2018.
 Kai Küstner: Spenden und Druck machen. tagesschau.de 25.04.2018.
,  Tamer El-Ghobashy: How American neglect imperils the victory over ISIS. washingtonpost.com 19.04.2018.
 After ISIS Was Driven Out, Syrian City Of Raqqa Remains In Rubble. npr.org 21.04.2018.
 See also Double Standards.
 Tamer El-Ghobashy: How American neglect imperils the victory over ISIS. washingtonpost.com 19.04.2018.
 See also Die Schlacht um Mossul (V).
 See also Double Standards.
 Amos Fox: Precision Fires Hindered by Urban Jungle. ausa.org 16.04.2018.
 Ben Hubbard: In a Syria Refuge, Extremists Exert Greater Control. nytimes.com 13.08.2017.
 Daniel Brössler, Paul-Anton Krüger: “Humanitäre Katastrophe”. sueddeutsche.de 24.04.2018.