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American Sanctions Waivers: Syrian Pitfalls and Regional Questions

American Sanctions Waivers: Syrian Pitfalls and Regional Questions

Sunday, 15 May, 2022 - 06:30
Children play at Al-Tehh camp for Syrians in Idlib, Syria, 07 May 2022. (EPA)

If someone were to carry out an investment project in Qamishli, which is held by Washington's allies in northeastern Syria, and employed people from the "security square" affiliated with Damascus, would that be a violation of American sanctions?


If someone were to carry out an investment project in Azaz in the Aleppo countryside in the north, which is held by Ankara's allies, and were to bring in raw material from nearby Tal Rifaat, would that be a violation of American sanctions?


Washington announced on Wednesday that it will allow some foreign investment in areas of northeast Syria outside government control without coming under sanctions.


The US Treasury said investments will be allowed in 12 sectors, including agriculture, construction and financing.


The decision will likely raise many questions in the near future.


US President Joe Biden's administration had intensified its efforts with its Arab, regional and Syrian allies in recent months to reach a decision that falls within its strategy in Syria. At the top of its priorities in preventing the return of ISIS.


This led to Wednesday's announcement and agreement to allow investments in specific sectors and exempting them from the Caesar Act and other sanctions.


The aim is to bolster stability and prevent the reemergence of ISIS and breathe life in regions held by the US and its allies and Turkey and its supporters.


A closer look at the Treasury decision and US press briefings reveals that the move will face major obstacles and pitfalls because of its many contradictions, which include:


1 - Oil: The American order allows operations related to the purchase of oil products, such as fuel, but it bars dealings with the Syrian government or individuals subject to sanctions. The order stipulates that the investments must not include the oil sector, which is under sanctions.


The problem here lies in the fact that the region east of the Euphrates River boasts 90 percent of Syria's oil wealth and more than half of its gas wealth. It now produces 90,000 barrels a day, some of which is sent to government regions through warlords and mediators known to Washington.


The application of the new order will be subject to many tests and will wade through gray areas.


2 - Political recognition: Ankara and Damascus have heavily criticized the new American measure because it favors the US-backed Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Turkey views as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) that it has banned as terrorist.


American officials stressed during a press briefing on Friday that the measure "is not a political step, but an economic one". It is "a stabilization step to help improve conditions for people living in these non-regime areas".


"This step does not promote, support, or endorse autonomy in any part of Syria. The United States is deeply committed to the territorial integrity of Syria," they added.


Turkish officials had discussed the measure with their American counterparts. Ankara was not satisfied with its final phrasing even though it does include regions under its control in the Aleppo countryside.


The issue will no doubt be discussed during Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu during his visit to Washington in the coming hours.


3 - Construction and stability: Washington announced that it will " continue to oppose reconstruction directed by or for the Assad regime, which would only serve the regime’s narrow interests and not those of the Syrian people."


Washington and its European allies agree that they will not support reconstruction in Syria before achieving a new political solution based on UN Security Council resolution 2254. However, American officials say that the new decision seeks to "support stability" and "recovery". So where do the actual limits of an investment project lie between "reconstruction" and "stability"?


4 - Geographic aspects: The American measure delineates the SDF- and Turkish-held regions included in the waivers and it excludes villages and small areas held by Damascus and the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which is designated as terrorist by the Security Council.


An American official informed me on Friday that the "key is to ensure that anyone seeking to benefit from the waiver would not deal with people under sanctions." But are the human and geographic borders obvious between villages and towns and Syrians and Syrians just as they are between countries and customs checkpoints?


5 - Normalization and division: American officials stressed that the new waivers do not permit any activity with the Syrian government or people under sanctions. "We will not lift sanctions against the Assad regime or its cronies, nor will we normalize relations with the Assad regime until there is irreversible progress toward a political resolution to the conflict in line with resolution 2254, which we have not seen."


But is this measure another step by Washington to deal with the reality in Syria? Is is an additional step to consolidate the "border" between the three zones of influence, and rather, to deal with them as islets and "dividing the divided"?


The new American measures raises several questions, many of which were answered in closed-door consultations that Americans held with their Arab and regional peers. The difference here is that the measure has become an executive decision that American companies are bound to. It is now up to the Syrian parties to deal with its opportunities, challenges and risks.


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