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Washington Won’t Normalize Ties with Damascus, Won’t Prevent Others from Doing So

Washington Won’t Normalize Ties with Damascus, Won’t Prevent Others from Doing So

Saturday, 16 October, 2021 - 06:00
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, accompanied by UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, speaks at a joint news conference at the State Department in Washington, US, October 13, 2021. (Reuters)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent remarks on Syria have been the clearest American position on the war-torn country. They were clear for what they openly declared and did not, which is probably the most important.

At a press briefing alongside his counterparts from the United Arab Emirates and Israel in Washington, Blinken said on Wednesday that the American priority in Syria lies in “expanding humanitarian access for people who desperately need that assistance, and we had some success, as you know, with renewing the critical corridor in northwestern Syria to do that.”

The other priority lies in “sustaining the campaign that we have with the coalition against ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria,” he said.

The third is “making clear our commitment, our ongoing commitment to demand accountability from the [Bashar] Assad regime and the preservation of basic international norms like promoting human rights and nonproliferation through the imposition of targeted sanctions; and sustaining local ceasefires, which are in place in different parts of the country,” stated Blinken.

“As we’re moving forward, in the time ahead, keeping violence down; increasing humanitarian assistance and focusing our military efforts on any terrorist groups that pose a threat to us or to our partners, with the intent and capacity to do that. These are going to be the critical areas of focus for us, and they’re also, I think, important to advancing a broader political settlement to the Syrian conflict consistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2254,” he added.

In reality, however, the gap between these statements and the developments on the ground is vast. True, the resolution to extend cross border aid was passed in July, but a meeting between American and Russian officials in Geneva revealed that Moscow was still committed to its stance. Russia has said that extending the resolution next year hinges on a report by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Moscow’s satisfaction with the progress in providing assistance for the “early recovery” in Syria related to reconstruction and the delivery of aid across zones of influence.

Moreover, the gap between statements and the situation on the ground also apply to maintaining the ceasefire. True, the ceasefire has held along the frontlines for 18 months, but air strikes, clashes and provocations are ongoing, whether by Russia in northern Syria or Israel throughout the country.

Notably, Blinken made his statements weeks after Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visited Moscow and ahead of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s visit to the Russian capital next week. The PM is expected to receive reassurances from Russian President Vladimir Putin that Israel has “free reign” to crack down on Iran and Syria without harming the Russian army.

Blinken made his remarks of a “ceasefire” amid ongoing raids, clashes and drone strikes on northeastern Syria. The US continues to threaten to impose sanctions on Turkey and the Biden administration extended the national emergency executive order in Syria that was first issued in 2019 in wake of Ankara’s incursion against Kurdish forces. The administration has also assured its Kurdish alliances in Syria that US forces will remain deployed in regions east of the Euphrates in wake of the chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan. The situation in Kurdish regions and near the border has so far, held, but Turkey has in recent days signaled it was ready for a military escalation to put an end to perceived threats from Syria.

More doubts have been cast over America’s statements and its actions. While Blinken spoke about pushing for a “broader political settlement”, the official has yet since his appointment to meet with UN special envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen even though he has had opportunities to do so in Rome, New York and Washington. It is as if he were saying that the Syrian file is not important. So, it came as no surprise that Blinken failed to mention in his remarks on Wednesday the meeting of the Syrian Constitutional Committee in Geneva on Monday.

Blinken was also expected to declare Washington’s stance from Arab attempts to normalize ties with Damascus. He said: “What we have not done and what we do not intend to do is to express any support for efforts to normalize relations or rehabilitate Mr. Assad, or lifted a single sanction on Syria or changed our position to oppose the reconstruction of Syria until there is irreversible progress toward a political solution, which we believe is necessary and vital.”

Significantly, Blinken made his statements after meeting with UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and months after Jordan’s King Abdullah II had visited the US. No doubt, Amman and Abu Dhabi are very eager for rapprochement with Damascus. So, it was notable that Blinken said the US does not intend to express support for efforts to normalize ties with the regime. This stands in contrast to the former Trump administration, whereby the Biden administration will declare its position and principles, but it won’t wage a diplomatic and political campaign to discourage its allies or sanction those who veer off its stances.

This hands-off approach could be blamed on several factors, one of which is Washington’s exhaustion from the Middle East in general, and the significant resistance the Biden policy over Syria is witnessing in American institutions.

This was demonstrated when two members of Congress’ Foreign Relations Committee openly opposed Arab normalization with Damascus and demanded that Washington prevent it. Two prominent members of the committee also contacted Arab countries to warn them against rushing to normalize relations as the US heads towards midterm elections in which the Republics are tipped to make gains.

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