The United States is forging ahead in its policy against Syria, imposing new sanctions on military, security and economic officials, as it deepens its isolation of Damascus. Russia, meanwhile, is standing at a crossroads with its choices, the last of which was beginning preparations to hold a conference on refugees in Damascus next month and reshuffling the Russian team at the foreign ministry tasked with handling the Syrian file. Amid these developments, the upcoming American presidential election looms large as the world holds its breath for a new or reelected leader to assume the reins in the White House.
Meanwhile, the Russians have informed Europe that four factors have deepened the Syrian economic crisis: Nine years of war, the novel coronavirus pandemic, the economic crisis in Lebanon and western sanctions. Moscow has waged a fierce campaign against western sanctions, while Washington and Europe have ignored the criticism and forged ahead with more punitive measures. The European Union is expected in days to reveal new sanctions against members of the new Syrian government. Washington on Wednesday slapped sanctions on the Syrian central bank governor and 16 officials from the military, security and business sectors.
The latest American sanctions have taken to 75 the number of people who have been blacklisted since the Caesar Act came to effect. They have mainly targeted officers and officials who are involved in Syria’s nearly decade-long conflict, as well as figures who are fronts for the regime’s economic operations.
Through its sanctions, Washington is seeking to underscore the seriousness of its policy and deny the regime a military victory. Damascus has claimed that its victory will lead to Arab and European money pouring in to rebuild Syria. The US has sought to dash these hopes. Some believed that time was on Damascus’ side, but the sanctions demonstrate that it is not, because the economic crisis will only compound the pressure.
Syria cannot, therefore, normalize its relations with Arab countries or Europe and Damascus will remain isolated unless it makes strategic concessions. These concessions include ending its support for terrorism, pushing Iran to withdraw its forces from Syria, holding people involved in the war to account, eliminating its chemical weapons arsenal, allowing refugees to voluntarily return home and implementing United Nations Security Council resolution 2254.
Moscow, meanwhile, is sending out two conflicting messages: It is claiming that the American sanctions will not impact Damascus’ decisions, while also stressing that they are destroying its government and economy. Washington is countering with another message: The Russian military policy has failed and a political solution in Syria is necessary, according to resolution 2254.
These messages place Russia at a “Syrian crossroads,” say European observers. Moscow knows that the military strategy will not succeed, but it has yet to come up with an alternative.
It is seen, however, to have taken steps to that end when it reshuffled the foreign ministry team handling Syria by introducing more diplomatic figures who are close to Foreign Minister Serge Lavrov.
Separately, Moscow is preparing to hold a conference on Syrian refugees aimed at returning some 5.6 million displaced in neighboring countries back to their homes. It wants the EU, UN and their agencies, and representatives from neighboring countries to take part. Washington, however, has urged several countries against attending. The EU, meanwhile, is planning its own refugee conference for next spring.
The UN is divided over whether to attend the Russian conference as its officials repeatedly demand that refugees should return with their own volition and with dignity. They noted that in September, only 25,000 Syrians have returned to Syria compared to 95,000 during the same month last year. They have partially blamed the coronavirus outbreak in the war-torn country for the drop in figures.