These efforts reached their zenith with the re-opening of the UAEʹs embassy in Damascus, the visit by the now-deposed Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, to Damascus and the attempt to bring Assad back into the Arab League as a first step on the road to his international rehabilitation.

The Washington Post recently quoted Anwar Qarqash, the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, as he explained the reasons for his countryʹs decision to restore diplomatic relations with Damascus in interview: "The Arabs have no influence in Damascus at all. Because we demolished all bridges of communication in 2011, we allowed regional parties such as Turkey and Iran to become decision-makers. This killed the Arab influence inside Syria".

Several European countries, led by Italy, Bulgaria, Austria and Norway, have also increased their back channel activities with the Assad regime in order to find a way out of the EUʹs professed moral high-ground of refusing to deal with a war criminal. The French President Emmanuel Macronʹs statement that "he does not see a legitimate successor to Bashar al-Assad in Syria" was the most explicit and most salient in this context.

However, when some Arab countries sought to return Assad to the Arab League, all efforts at normalisation were countered by a strong U.S. rejection, which amounted to a clear warning against such overtures towards the Damascus regime. As the Washington Post leaked, the Trump administration pressed its Arab allies to renounce all attempts to normalise relations with the Assad regime, warning that any move to participate in Syrian reconstruction would incur retaliatory U.S. sanctions.

According to the same newspaper, Washington is seeking to pressure Assad into embarking on political reforms. Despite the absence of a clear strategy by the Trump administration when dealing with the Syrian file, it is clear that the United States is determined to disrupt any solution or a breakthrough in the Syrian issue, unless it is at the helm.

Following the warning issued by the U.S. to its allies in Syria, the Syria Democratic Forces, regarding the sale of crude oil or the transfer of Iranian oil to the Syrian regime via the Euphrates, it is now clear that the U.S. is serious about its economic embargo of Syria. Furthermore, the Public Affairs Office of the U.S. Treasury Department has also issued a statement warning against supplying the Syrian regime with fuel and pointing to the risks associated with facilitating shipments of oil destined for ports owned and operated by that regime. This warning certainly sped up the deal that saw Russia leasing the port of Tartous, a measure aimed at circumventing the aforementioned embargo.

It seems likely that the previously described stalemate relating to the situation in Syria will last for a long time, thus preventing the Assad regime and its allies from converting their military victories into sustainable political and economic gains. This will inevitably affect the cohesion of the Syrian regime in light of the economic crisis (lack of fuel and daily necessities) that Syria is currently experiencing. Concerned that the Assad regime will suddenly collapse under pressure, Russia is anxious to take over and directly manage the remaining state structures and its vital installations.

Where is the Syrian crisis headed?

The regional and international political climate would appear to predicate against any Syrian reconstruction in the near future, particularly since the United States has put curtailing Iranʹs influence in the region top of its list of priorities. Moreover, the political and economic embargo against the Syrian regime will deprive the country of any opportunity of attracting foreign investment, even given those oligarchs that have personal ties to Assad himself.

The ongoing survival of the corrupt Assad regime and the absence of any real horizon for political or economic stability in the foreseeable future means there are few investment opportunities, even for those seeking to invest long-term. In addition, there seems to be no international plan to improve living conditions within Syria or any international consensus that could constitute the basis for an acceptable political solution.

On the contrary, there are many indications of increased levels of violence in the regions of Idlib, western Aleppo, as well as Kurdish-controlled areas along the border with Turkey. Furthermore, the ongoing political stalemate is likely to exacerbate the crisis between different factions within the regime, due to the lack of consumer goods and the drying up of revenue sources made possible by the war, such as relief aid, financial aid for the opposition factions, and the looting of rebel areas once they surrender.

If Iran can reach a new mutual understanding with the Trump administration, the landscape may change completely; but this possibility does not seem possible at the moment. As Russia tightens its control of the remaining Syrian state structures and institutions, it could feel free to dispense with the head of the regime in the foreseeable future. Such a development might well create a new dynamic, potentially opening the door to new international consensus and ending the gridlock in the Syrian crisis.

Ghiath Bilal

© 2019

Ghiath Bilal is a consultant on Middle East affairs, specialising in civil society development and human rights. He collaborates with a number of think tanks and research centres throughout the region and beyond.

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