The “humanitarian deal” struck between the aides of US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the extension of the cross-border aid resolution in Syria drew parallels with the “step-for-step” approach that was proposed by United Nations officials and mediators. The approach is based on reciprocity between what is “required” of Moscow and its partners and what is “offered” by Washington and its allies. Questions have arisen over the ultimate purpose of this approach: Does it appease the Syrians or ensure Iran’s withdrawal?
Since the arrival of the Biden administration, experts and former officials have been floating the ideas and results they have reached over the years in behind-the-scenes negotiations between Syrian government and opposition representatives and influential countries.
Among those ideas was a paper by the Carter Center earlier this year that proposed a “phased approach” to resolving the crisis. Among its suggestions was relieving efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic from sanctions, facilitating the reconstructions of civilian infrastructure, such as hospitals and schools, and the gradual easing of American and European sanctions. The condition was that none of these steps would be taken before concrete results over negotiated issues were felt on the ground.
Damascus, in return, is required to release political prisoners, secure the safe and dignified return of refugees, protect civilians, ensure unimpeded aid is delivered to all regions, destroy its remaining chemical weapons in line with a 2013 agreement, implement political and security reforms and adopt more decentralized governance.
These suggestions had fallen on deaf ears in recent months given that past experience has proven its failure. Undisclosed meetings were held between the Americans and Russians in Vienna and Geneva and openly between the Germans and French on the one hand and the Russians on the other. Moscow “did not offer anything” in return for these proposals. Detractors have meanwhile warned that such an approach signifies the beginning of normalization of relations with Damascus and lifting of sanctions with no concessions in return.
Who takes the first step?
Amid his declared efforts to activate the Constitutional Committee, UN envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen had always banked on two issues: Kicking off the “step-for-step” approach as soon as American-Russian understandings are reached and launching an international contact group that would include the US-led Small Group, Russia-led Astana Group and five permanent Security Council members.
Pedersen had carried out consultations to test whether the rival partis would accept these proposals. During the closed-door ministerial meeting on Syria in Rome on June 28, he presented a detailed vision of his proposal. Asharq Al-Awsat obtained a transcript of his remarks in which the envoy explained three reasons for making his proposal: The 15-month stalemate on frontlines, the economic collapse that has created new pressure and concerns and a new realization that no party can achieve military victory or impose a certain political status quo.
On that last point, he elaborated that the Syrian government cannot “dictate” the outcome of the conflict, neither can the opposition, Russians, Iranians, Americans, and the Astana and Small Groups.
Pedersen stressed that the government is required to change its behavior towards the Syrian people and for the sake of a comprehensive future for Syria. Notably, he did not demand regime change to achieve this goal.
He went on to say that the government has specific demands regarding foreign forces, sanctions and reconstruction. He revealed that meeting these demands comes at a cost, which is why he urged Damascus to clarify the type of reforms it can implement, especially if the other side also took concrete steps on the ground.
American-Russian cover is necessary to achieve any of the above, but there is also a conviction that support must be provided by other “players”. This in turn will pave the way for achieving the envoy’s proposal to form an international contact group on Syria.
The foreign ministers of major western countries that were meeting in Rome did not appear eager to meet these demands.
An official who took part in the meeting told Asharq Al-Awsat that London, Paris and Berlin were ready to consider new proposals to reach a political resolution and implement Security Council resolution 2254. At the same time, they do not want to relinquish three key elements - reconstructions, normalization and sanctions - in exchange for minor steps that can be easily retracted.
In other words, led by the US, these countries may accept some small steps, such as refraining from imposing new sanctions – an approach so far adopted by the Biden administration – and offering sanctions waivers related to humanitarian issues. Major steps, however, hinge on radical steps from the other side.
Washington still, however, refuses Iran’s participation. This stance is connected to broader regional issues beyond Syria. Moscow, for its part, is committed to the Astana Group, which includes Tehran and Ankara.
Notably, the “humanitarian deal” reached between the US and Russia at the Security Council has helped get the ball rolling. It has returned attention to proposals that have long been forgotten.
The question remains about the ultimate goal of all of these efforts: Is it aimed at going ahead with Moscow’s vision to support the “legitimate government” in Damascus in achieving its plan to return to the pre-2011 situation? Is it aimed at abandoning the demand for “regime change” and making do with a “flexible political solution to implement resolution 2254 under a nationwide political agreement”? Is it aimed at dividing power between the three zones of influence, which are backed by foreign players, under the guise of “decentralization”? Is the goal purely Syrian or geopolitical tied to five armies – Iran, Turkey, Israel, the US and Russia - deployed there?