For several months now, the Syrian issue has witnessed a political and military stalemate. The Idlib front has been the same since last September’s Sochi agreement between Russia and Turkey. Russia is unable to violate its terms, as this would affect several other issues, especially since Moscow seems to need Ankara more than Iran in the near future, as Turkey can change the balance of power within the municipality.
As for the US withdrawal from east of the Euphrates and the talk about establishing a safe zone, followed by Turkish military intervention, it is dormant. This has led to an end to all local, regional and international action in the area. Turkey is unable to convince Russia and the US to make concessions, while it seems that Washington and Moscow are leaning towards keeping the Kurds as a military force with weight in the geographic equation in northern Syria.
Furthermore, the Arab political and economic openness to Damascus has declined greatly as a result of US pressure on Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf. There is a clear slowdown in the Syrian negotiations process, which began months before UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura stepped down late last year, and this is ongoing. There seems to be no international desire on the horizon to restart negotiations at this stage due to the fact that the political conditions have not yet been met.
It is clear that Syria’s military deployment will remain the same indefinitely, and that the Russian-Iranian-Syria axis will not be able to change it. Meanwhile, it seems that Washington appears to be holding on to its strategic presence in northern Syria, regardless of what form it takes. This is because it will be a strong tool in implementing its suffocating political and economic policies against the Syrian regime.
This is coupled with the US resorting to the adoption of a soft power strategy to exert pressure on the Syrian regime, Iran and Russia. There are three levels to this.
On the political level, it is evident in the US pressure on one hand and European on the other towards some Arab countries that are embracing the Assad regime. Hints of this pressure have started to show, with the Arab League freezing the idea of discussing an invitation for the Syrian regime to attend the Arab Summit. Meanwhile, the UAE froze its own process of openness towards Damascus, as did Jordan to some extent. Different US institutions have also managed to convince President Donald Trump that a soft power policy towards the Syrian regime is insufficient if there are no troops on the ground to protect the military progress made.
Meanwhile, the economic level is represented in the major suffocating sanctions suffered by the Syrian regime. The electricity and gas crises are the best examples of the impact of this, with the US succeeding in pushing Jordan to freeze its economic openness towards Syria. In order to achieve this, the US Commercial Attaché in Amman met with representatives from the industrial and commercial sectors and issued instructions to limit trade and contributions to the reconstruction of Iraq.
Washington’s warning was clear: economic exchanges would violate relevant US laws and place whoever violated these laws under direct US sanctions. The US position was a warning to its allies in the region, shortly ahead of passing the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act in Congress, which can now impose sanctions as powerful as those against Iran and North Korea.
Finally, on the legal level, the UN has witnessed accelerated action of a kind unprecedented in recent years. The Security Council convened over a month ago to discuss the use of chemical weapons in Syria, for example.
Although the Security Council did not specify the party responsible for using chemical weapons, it is worth noting that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has taken action to form a team to determine culpability. This was a major issue between the US and Russia, as the latter always demands that responsibility should be determined by the Security Council and the key member states. This includes the politicisation of the issue. Meanwhile, Washington, along with Paris, London, and Berlin, demands that the party responsible should be determined by the OPCW.
These measures were followed by two lawsuits being filed at the International Criminal Court in The Hague against members of the Syrian regime, the first of their kind since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution. Although the two suits were made on an individual basis by lawyers, they reflect the international atmosphere, which is moving towards the adoption of soft power against Damascus.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 18 April 2019
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.