February 16, 2018 / 3:08 PM / 9 months ago

Promising money, EU tries to woo Assad into Syria peace talks

SOFIA (Reuters) - The European Union’s top diplomat on Friday raised the prospect of collecting money for rebuilding Syria but only if fighting abates and Russia makes sure its ally, President Bashar al-Assad engages in the stalled U.N. peace talks.

Boys walk on the rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 9, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

The EU wants to leverage its top aid donor role to revive the United Nations-led talks that have achieved little over seven years of the war and hit a deadlock as Russian and Iranian military interventions gave Assad the upper hand on the ground.

Federica Mogherini, who will host an international conference on Syria on April 24-25 in Brussels, said she could seek pledges of not only humanitarian aid but also for early recovery in Syria, where the multi-sided proxy war has killed hundreds of thousands and driven millions from homes.

“We are ready and we’re willing to also use the conference to mobilise resources for early recovery, especially in the areas liberated from Daesh (Islamic State),” Mogherini said.

“But we need to see improvements on the ground and the trend we see today is the exact opposite,” she told a news conference. “At the moment we’re not seeing de-escalation. At the moment we’re seeing escalation.”

Last year’s Syria conference in Brussels saw the EU pledge 1.2 billion euros for 2017. Mogherini said the bloc would offer fresh money this year and expected other participants from more than 70 countries to do the same.

But the 2017 event lacked top-level delegations from Russia, Turkey and the United States, and was quickly overshadowed by a chemical attack inside Syria.

Mogherini said the EU has been supporting the Syrian opposition to help it become more united and prepared for U.N. talks.

“(But) there is clearly something we cannot deliver as Europeans because we have no influence and no contacts with the Syrian regime.”

“What we are doing in these days and weeks even more intensely than before is holding talks with those players that do have leverage on Damascus, encouraging them to make sure that the regime engages credibly in the talks in Geneva.”

After helping turn the tide of the war in Syria in favour of its ally Assad, Moscow has cast itself as a Middle East peace broker.

The EU backs the opposition groups in Syria, which this month have seen some of the worst violence yet in the conflict, the U.N. has warned, as Assad’s forces bombarded two of the key remaining rebel pockets in eastern Ghouta and Idlib.

Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Toby Chopra

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