There have been calls lately to lift the sanctions against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, on various pretexts, such as the failure of the sanctions policy to affect Assad’s policy, or because the Syrian people, more than 80 percent of whom are suffering below the poverty line, are the main victims of those sanctions.
Those calls came either in the form of criticism of the US policy, as expressed by the expert at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Alena Douhan, or by searching for new approaches to deal with the Syrian crisis. In this regard, articles by US diplomats appear, which are seen by some as an introduction to the formation of an influential US lobby for lifting the sanctions on the Syrian regime, or through appeals issued by local and regional organisations, such as the letter sent by the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) to both the US President Joe Biden and the French President Emmanuel Macron.
What is the truth about this movement, and does it mark the beginning of a shift in US and Western policy towards the Assad regime?
Action by Damascus' international allies
The statement issued by the United Nations human rights expert Alena Douhan on 28 December 2020, in which she called on the US to "remove unilateral sanctions" against the Assad regime, formed the basis on which many figures and bodies have built their new movement to lift the sanctions on the Syrian regime.
Douhan, who holds a position on "the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures", had published an official statement on the UNHRC website, expressing concern that "sanctions imposed under the Caesar Act may exacerbate the already dire humanitarian situation in Syria, especially in the course of COVID-19 pandemic, and put the Syrian people at even greater risk of human rights violations”. She warned that the enforcement of the Caesar Act deprives the Syrian people of the chance to rebuild their basic infrastructure.
The US Special Envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn issued a statement in which he said that the US “categorically rejects” what was stated in the statement of Special Rapporteur Douhan, which he described as a “misguided and false” “attempt to blame Syria’s economic crisis on US sanctions”, stressing that “the blame for Syria’s economic situation and the humanitarian crisis falls on Assad’s brutal war against the Syrian people, not on US sanctions”. Some parties indicated that Douhan, who holds the nationality of Belarus, the country that supports Assad and is an ally of Russia, may have done so for political reasons. Indeed, her statement was followed by the demand by China's Permanent Representative to the United Nations Zhang Jun, during a Security Council meeting on 21 January 2021, that the “unilateral coercive measures” against Syria be removed, indicating that the sanctions “severely undermine . . . [the Syrian] economic base and hinder Syrian people’s access to medical supplies and services”.
For her part, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry Maria Zakharova asked, on 21 January 2021, that the economic sanctions imposed on the Syrian regime be lifted “for the benefit of the Syrian people, whose well-being is allegedly a major concern for the Western community, and will help promote regional stability and security”.
This simultaneous move indicates the existence of a central planning for it, which seeks to seize the opportunity of the US administration's transitional period and confuse its future options vis-à-vis the Syrian regime.
The regime’s moral allies
Letters were sent by 95 Syrian, Arab and European personalities to US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and other European leaders, calling for the lifting of the US and European sanctions on the Assad regime. The bulk of those figures belong to the category of Christian clerics in Syria, Lebanon, France, Switzerland and the UK, in addition to European and Arab politicians, Members of Parliament (MPs), and academic researchers.
The signatories urged “to help Syrians to alleviate a humanitarian crisis that threatens to trigger a new wave of instability in the Middle East and beyond by implementing the UN Special Rapporteur’s recommendation”.
What is striking is that most of the signatories to the letters are religious leaders, leaders of churches and Christian religious groups, belonging to a number of countries, in addition to European parliamentarians, who have visited Damascus in recent years, which confirms the existence of organised work that is backed by political currents and international parties, whose main goal is not to show sympathy with the Syrians, but rather to ease the siege on the Assad regime, especially since all those figures are known for their support for the Assad regime, which they claim is the greatest defender of diversity, pluralism and the life of Christians in the East, and seek to rehabilitate him and polish his image in the West.
Perhaps the most prominent aspect of the content of the movement calling for the lifting of sanctions on the Assad regime was the remarks made by Jeffrey Feltman, who held several positions in the US State Department, and Hrair Balian, former director of the Conflict Resolution Program at the Carter Center, in their joint article published on the Responsible Statecraft website on the US and Western policy that has been followed in Syria since 2011, the economic sanctions and their feasibility, and the future options facing the Biden administration.
The two writers considered that the previous US policy in Syria had failed, did not achieve US interests, and did not help in stabilising the country and ending the conflict, which necessitates a shift in that policy that is centred on isolating and sanctioning Syria, which succeeded in crippling the country's already war-ravaged economy, but has failed to produce behavioural change in the Syrian regime. Besides, it has left the US on the sidelines and Russia, Turkey, and Iran as the main arbiters of Syria’s future.
The two writers believe that the US has two options: either to continue the current approach, which has succeeded only in contributing to a festering failed Syrian state, or to adopt a reconceived diplomatic process that aims to develop a detailed framework for engaging the Syrian government on a limited set of concrete and verifiable steps, which, if implemented, will be matched by targeted assistance and sanctions adjustments from the US and EU. Those steps would include the release of political prisoners, dignified reception for returning refugees, civilian protection and unhindered, countrywide humanitarian access, the removal of remaining chemical weapons pursuant to the 2013 Agreement, and political as well as security sector reforms, including good-faith participation in the UN’s Geneva process and greater decentralization.
This approach seems to have had a response in some academic and diplomatic circles, and was supported by the former US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. In order to encourage acceptance of it, its advocates suggest that the plan be public so that whoever is responsible for the failure of the solution would be known.
However, the problem is that the authors of this approach did not notice that their demands are the same as those of the international community that the Assad regime has refused to accept since the issuance of Security Council Resolution 2254, and has not shown any willingness to accept them. Furthermore, it has been proven beyond any doubt that the Syrian regime, together with its backers Russia and Iran, is not concerned with the political settlement proposed by the international community, and therefore these approaches will only amount to offering a free concession to the regime and normalising with it without any return. This is the viewpoint of Western diplomatic and academic circles.
It is clear that there is a coordinated international move by bodies, organisations and countries with the aim of breaking the siege on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and rehabilitating it. The makers of this move are trying to use the suffering of the Syrians and their poor economic conditions as a means of pressure on the decision-maker in the US and the West, by relying on the assumption that the Syrian file will not be of importance to the Biden administration which, based on the recent appointments and the handing over of the Iran file to Robert Malley, who is close to Iran and Assad, may apparently revive the Obama administration’s policy of marginalising the Syrian file in favour of negotiating with Iran.
However, those initiatives are not expected to succeed due to the intransigence of the Assad regime and its supporters, and their refusal to offer the slightest concession in exchange for lifting or easing the sanctions, meaning that Assad will abort those initiatives as long as they contain corresponding conditions.
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