Back and forth on Syria

Bassel Oudat , Friday 5 Oct 2018

The US has renewed its commitment to a political solution in Syria, but it is still doing nothing to bring one about, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Syrian protesters in Idlib
Syrians demonstrating against the government in the rebel held town of Maaret Al-Numan, north of Idlib (Photo: AFP)

The US issued a declaration along with Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UK on 28 September supporting the immediate formation of a constitutional committee “to make progress in UN efforts to reach a political solution in the Syrian conflict based on Security Council Resolution 2254.”

These countries also called on the UN and the office of the UN envoy to Syria to urgently hold a meeting of this constitutional committee and to begin drafting a new constitution for Syria.

It should pave the way for free and fair elections under UN supervision in a safe and unbiased climate where all eligible Syrians, including expatriates, have the right to participate, they said.

The declaration is a new US strategy which on the surface looks like a push for a political solution in Syria. However, at its core it also raises many questions, whether by not mentioning any binding mechanism on the regime or by including ambiguous statements, similar to the Geneva I Declaration, like holding elections in “a safe and unbiased climate.”

The declaration came days after US acting Assistant Secretary for Middle East Affairs David Satterfield said the US believed that reaching international consensus on rebuilding Syria would only be possible if a peace process was in place under UN auspices.

The Americans, he said, were also conveying this message during talks with the Russians. It coincided with statements by a US official that nothing would be done about the return of the Syrian refugees or reconstruction while President Bashar Al-Assad remains in power and there would be no contact with the regime through any international agencies.

The US and Europe have said that reconstruction in Syria and the return of the refugees will only be possible if the head of the regime and senior officials leave office.

However, US permanent Representative to the UN Nikki Haley said that Washington would not force Al-Assad out of office, saying that he would “leave voluntarily” even though this is obviously very unlikely.

The dichotomy in the US position throws a wrench into finding a solution to the Syrian crisis. The White House will not allow reconstruction or the return of the refugees if the regime does not change, but at the same time it is not willing to take serious steps towards removing the regime, whether directly or through a deal with Russia.

There is no consensus to use Chapter VII of the UN Charter or the principle of protection to disarm the Russian veto on UN Security Council Resolutions that impact the Syrian regime.

Syria is now divided into two parts: east and west of the Euphrates River. The east side is home to the country’s oil and gas reserves and is under the control of the US, while the west is controlled by Russia and the regime except for Idlib in northwest Syria which is under the control of the opposition and Turkey.

Syria is thus a divided country with more than half its population displaced. This may be what the US and Russia want, and it certainly pleases Israel.

The US is linking reconstruction in Syria to the political transition, which means continuing to punish the Syrian regime but without any attempts to sanction it or Russia.

Last week, one US official threatened to make Syria “impossible to live in” if the regime and Russia did not submit. This was not a promising statement for the Syrian people, and it could be part of a plot to exhaust the country while leaving the regime intact.

Al-Assad and his top officials will not be harmed because they have wealth inside and outside the country that will allow them to continue until the end. There is little prospect of prosecuting them or holding them accountable for the war crimes that have been committed in Syria.

Human rights activists including former US ambassador for war crimes Stephen Rapp, former prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia Geoffrey Nice, and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay have listed ten conditions as prerequisites for reconstruction in Syria, warning European parties against cooperating with Russia or remnants of the regime in rebuilding Syria.

The opposition in Idlib, the last stronghold of the Syrian opposition, took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands recently and raised a single banner saying “no constitution and no reconstruction until Bashar leaves.”

Russia has asked the US and Europe to assist in the reconstruction and the return of refugees and displaced. It has called for the lifting of sanctions against the regime to facilitate this goal and attempted to reassure the Syrian refugees that conditions are now safe back home.

It has called on the refugees to return without fear, but it has refused to link the return of the refugees or reconstruction with political transition.

In January 2018, former US secretary of state Rex Tillerson made a statement that he said was a clear declaration of the US strategy on Syria.

Tillerson said that US forces would remain in Syria to fight the Islamic State (IS) group, the Al-Assad regime, and Iran, and that their presence in Syria was in the US national interest.

Al-Assad’s departure as part of a peace process led by the UN “will create conditions for a sustainable peace,” he said, adding that free and fair elections would automatically lead to his departure and that of his family from power forever.

“Iran will also be blocked from achieving its goal of taking control of the region,” Tillerson said.

Something similar is being promoted by the US today. It is clear that the Syrians will not return home soon, that the reconstruction will not begin, and that the US will not abandon its prerequisites for a political solution in Syria.

Neither will it put serious pressure on the regime. It seems likely that the Russians will not change their policies in support of the regime, and the climate of oppression will not change, at least not in the near future.

While others continue to meddle in Syria, trying out new strategies, the Syrian people are waiting for political, social and food security and an end to oppression. Only then can a democratic political solution in the country begin.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Back and forth on Syria

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