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How can a regional accord help end war in Syria?

Udenrigsministerens tale ved Syrien-konferencen i Eigtveds Pakhus den 27. maj 2014.

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Good morning everyone,

Let me begin by thanking the Danish Institute for International Studies and the European Council on Foreign Relations for their hard work and concerted efforts to organise this conference. I would also like to welcome the many experts and policy makers from the region, who have made the journey to Copenhagen. Today, we will benefit from your expertise and ideas as to how regional actors can contribute more constructively to a political process in Syria.

Much attention has been devoted to the way the conflict and its spill-over effects has deepened antagonisms and exacerbated regional tensions. There has also been focus on how regional tensions continue to fuel the Syrian conflict. Most observers agree that there simply can be no solution for Syria without regional consensus and a common buy-in.

The question is therefore straightforward: How do we go about bringing the regional powers into a more constructive political process? This is today’s topic. This is where this seminar should focus: The constructive role of the regional powers.

I am also glad to see such an impressive turnout, which I think reflects the importance of addressing the proxy dimension of Syria’s deepening conflict. 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

During my recent talks with President Ahmad Al Jarba of the Opposition Coalition and during my visit to Turkey, I had the opportunity to discuss the conflict first-hand with a variety of Turkish and Syrian actors, government officials, Syrian civil society organisations and opposition groups, all directly involved with or affected by the Syrian conflict. The message was clear. We need to do our utmost to stop the suffering of the Syrian people. And I saw with my own eyes the huge practical and economic burden the conflict is placing on Turkey. And yet Turkey has not reneged on its open door policy. It continues to receive and assist refugees from Syria. I commend their tremendous effort, support and generosity towards the people fleeing across their border.

The situation in Syria is the most dramatic humanitarian and security crisis facing the world today. The numbers speak for themselves: More than 160.000 Syrians have been killed and around 5000 women, children and men are added to this number every month. 2.8 million have fled to neighbouring countries  placing an untenable burden on not only Turkey, but also Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

With no prospect of an end in sight, the conflict represents an unprecedented threat to regional stability - and increasingly also to global stability.
For those still residing inside this tortured country, the suffering is unspeakable. 9. 3 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance and a staggering 6.5 million people have been internally displaced. Those not yet driven from their homes or across international borders cannot escape the increasing brutality of the conflict - not least the regime’s indiscriminate use of barrel bombs and starvation as a tactic of war. These tactics are testimony to a blatant disregard for civilian life. Denmark has consistently ccondemned the gross human rights abuses, war crimes and crimes against humanity taking place in Syria, including not least the use of chemical weapons.

To add insult to injury, we have recently seen new reports that chemical weapons (chlorine) have again been used, furthering the misery of the people of Syria. I am utterly sickened by these reports. As all of you know, Denmark is playing a key role in the operation to remove the regime’s declared stockpile of chemical weapons and we are nearing the end of our mission. However, these new reports show that the operation is no silver bullet. I urge that the OPCW be given full access to investigate these new reports. If confirmed the international community must be ready to hold those responsible fully accountable for their crimes.

In this regard I would like to stress that Denmark since the beginning of the conflict has been a constant supporter of a referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Those responsible for the horrific violations and abuse in Syria must be held accountable. Such acts must be prevented. That is why Denmark co-sponsored the French draft Security Council Resolution that would have referred those responsible for crimes against humanity to the ICC. I strongly regret Russia and China’s decision to veto a resolution with an otherwise overwhelming level of international backing. This was an opportunity for the international community to stand up for justice for the Syrian people. In light of the horrific atrocities committed every day in Syria, preventing those responsible for horrific atrocities from justice seems to me indefensible.

Denmark will continue to work for accountability in Syria. Together with our close partners in the EU, we will look at possibly expanding the EU sanctions regime to list known perpetrators. We want to send a clear signal that the world is still watching. And we will increase our support for the moderate opposition who have been clear in their support for a referral to the ICC.

In Turkey, my concern about the spread of extremism and extremist groups was widely shared. Their increased involvement in the conflict poses a threat not only to Syria, but also to regional and international security. I am particularly concerned about the increasing number of European nationals that travel to Syria to fight in the ranks of these extremist groups. It is a problem with serious security implications, including here in Denmark. That is why Denmark supports a number of initiatives aimed at preventing radicalisation and discouraging people from leaving the EU to go to Syria as foreign fighters by increasing counter-narrative initiatives. It is very important that we continue to increase our cooperation in terms of knowledge sharing and preventive measures, including with neighbouring countries like Turkey.

Denmark continues to engage in civilian stabilization efforts to support the moderate opposition and the general Syrian population. In this regard, I am very pleased to have recently announced – together with the Minister for Development Assistance - a new Danish stabilization programme for Syria. We have already allocated more than 18 million USD for these purposes. With the new programme, the Danish aid amounts to more than 36 million USD for 2012 to 2014. This contribution comes on top of our significant humanitarian contribution of more than DKK 725 Million or USD 127 Million.

An important objective of the stabilization programme is to increase the delivery of basic services to the people in the opposition held areas of Syria. A key priority in the Danish stabilization efforts is also to improve the security for civilians in the areas we work in. Establishing a police- and justice sector is an integral part of our efforts and the close cooperation with the moderate Syrian opposition is vital in this regard. Denmark is fully behind the Syrian Opposition Coalition, and through our Special Envoy we continue the close dialogue and partnership, which is a cornerstone in the Danish support. I was therefore pleased to meet with interim Prime Minister Tomeh and other opposition leaders in Turkey earlier this month, where we also discussed our future cooperation. 

I made it clear to the interim Prime Minister and others that the reality on the ground - this status quo - is completely unacceptable. We cannot remain idle. We owe it to the people of Syria to do all we can to make progress towards a peaceful solution. And that is still our main objective. As I have said recently, the international community must continue to strive to find new ways of supporting the Syrian people and to help them reach a peaceful end to this ongoing human tragedy.

On the ground, the battle is mainly fought by Syrians. But regional actors have a growing stake in the conflict, providing patronage to the warring parties. At the same time, they also serve as critical levers and can use their influence to encourage movement on key issues. In my view, there are unexploited opportunities for greater regional cooperation to address the deteriorating situation in Syria and beyond. With the risk of regional conflagration growing, regional actors share many issues of concern such as

- regional destabilization brought on by refugee movements,
- a growing threat from extremist groups,
- weapons being more readily available
- and not least a deepening sectarianism.

In this, all parties would share the benefits of de-escalation.  As a first step, a concerted and regionally driven response could be developed that not only would address the humanitarian disaster, but also could lead to consensus and cooperation in tackling other issues. In light of the faltering state of Geneva II and the increased militarization on the ground, I strongly encourage all regional actors, especially Iran, to come to the table - and choose dialogue over violence.

Tremendous effort has already been invested in getting the regime and the opposition to sit down at the same table in Geneva. Thus far, diplomacy has sadly failed, but was has not failed is our strong determination to turn every stone in an attempt to alleviate the suffering of the millions of men, women and children, whose lives are at risk and to reach a peaceful solution to the conflict. I strongly urge those regional actors with the power and the influence over the warring parties to find the same determination to stop this human tragedy.

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