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Syria's Return... 'Step after Step'?

Syria's Return... 'Step after Step'?

Saturday, 27 November, 2021 - 07:00
Then vice president of the United States Joe Biden, left, shakes hands with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, March 10, 2011. (AP)

Once again, quiet diplomatic discussions have resumed over adopting a new approach towards Syria. This time around, they would test reaching a roadmap that addresses what is "demanded" of Damascus and its partners, and what is on "offer" to Russia by Washington and its allies.

Russia, it appears, is working on ending Damascus' isolation "one step at a time."

Washington has the means to press for its demands. It enjoys military presence in northeastern Syria, sanctions, the Caesar Act, and political isolation against Damascus - all of which it can use as conditions for the reconstruction of the war-torn country.

Moscow, meanwhile, is keen on receiving international recognition of the "legitimate government" in Damascus, ending its international isolation, reaching a settlement based on its interpretation of United Nations Security Council resolution 2254, empowering the central authority, lifting sanctions off Damascus and reconstructing Syria.

This approach has been tested secretly several times before by the Americans and Russians, but it has failed to make any breakthrough under former US President Donald Trump. Some limited progress was made through the deal in southern Syria that saw the US abandon the armed opposition and the regime's gradual return.

Under US President Joe Biden, demands have once again been made to reconsider this approach, given that the front lines in Syria between the three zones of influence have been largely unchanged since spring 2020, the country's major economic collapse and the main actors' realization that the military victory is impossible for any of them.

The proposal was kept behind closed doors and met with opposition or doubts by the active players. The US was not eager to go through with it and neither were its partners. Germany and France in particular were not to keen on it given their bitter experience in negotiating with Russia.

Moscow, itself, appeared committed to the Astana process along with Turkey and Iran. It too was not keen on mass negotiations over this Syria approach, rather, it preferred bilateral talks and understandings with Washington.

New developments, however, have prompted discussions over the possibility of reviving the "step for step" approach.

New factors have come into the picture. Besides the unchanging front lines and the ongoing economic crisis, Arab countries, such as the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, have been taking steps to normalize ties with Damascus.

The main new factor, however, that may make this approach viable is the Biden administration's lowering of its demands in Syria. Russia, for example, had insisted that the US abandon its demand for regime change in Damascus, and indeed it has happened. Just days ago the White House's Middle East coordinator, Brett McGurk said Washington is giving up its "regime change policies" that it had adopted in wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Washington's goals in Syria are now limited to preserving the gains in wake of the defeat of ISIS, ensuring the delivery of humanitarian aid, maintaining the ceasefire, supporting the political settlement based on resolution 2254 and holding war criminals to account.

This leaves greater room to work with Russia in humanitarian assistance, easing American sanctions, not obstructing any Arab normalization with Damascus, supporting economic projects, such as the Arab Gas Pipeline, and ending the veto on funding UN agency projects for "early recovery" in various sectors.

As it stands, the upcoming meetings that will be held over Syria will be important in testing whether the "step for step" approach is successful. Eyes will be turned to a meeting called for by Washington with its Arab and international allies in Brussels on December 2 and the ministerial meeting between Russia, Turkey and Iran in Astana on December 21.

What the US has to offer is clear, but it remains to be seen what Russia and its partners can bring to the table. This vagueness may be attributed to Moscow's inability to impose its agenda on Damascus.

Perhaps what Moscow really wants is a "step after step" approach, meaning having the US and its allies come closer to Damascus, and not the current "Russian step" in return for "American step" approach.

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