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The Damascus refugee conference is another sham like Astana and Sochi

Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad (on screen) at the international conference on the return of refugees held in Damascus on 11 November 2020 [LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images]
Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad (on screen) at the international conference on the return of refugees held in Damascus on 11 November 2020 [LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images]

Arabs took an active interest in the US election through their media and commentators. They backed and financed both sides, confirming the split among themselves over America's role in the region.

An Arab-Gulf coalition clung to incumbent President Donald Trump, viewing him as a saviour of their domestic policies in return for the economic, political and financial services they provided to the US. They did not consider his illegal and unethical policies in his many dealings in the region. Trump, meanwhile, overlooked the oppression in their countries and, like his predecessors in the White House, abandoned his responsibilities to maintain international peace and security.

Arabs disagree over support for Joe Biden as they do over a number of issues, a fact that Trump took advantage of to build his policies in the region, harvesting the differences for his investment. Trump is also leaving the White House after exploiting divisions in American society to hinder the changes sought by the Democrats and their supporters who voted to reject so-called "Trumpism", which they believe to be contrary to US values. Seventy million people voted for Trump, though, which could shape the kind of policies that Biden will need to unite a fractured nation.

Syrian opposition groups were also aligned either for or against Trump, each according to their own narrow interests. This was despite the fact that Trump's policy did not differ from that of his predecessor, Barack Obama, which involved containing the conflict at times and prolonging it when it suited the US do so. They both entrusted the issue to "contractors" by granting Russia the right to act in Syria in exchange for long-term investment in the country. This will not change with another Democratic president in the White House. Rather, it will strengthen the policies of Obama, who gave Russia the right to negotiate on behalf of the Syrian regime from 2013, and accept the deal to hand over chemical weapons in exchange for silence about the regime's use of poisonous gas against Syrian opposition-held areas.

READ: Syria blames US for hindering return of refugees

Following a realistic reading of US policies by Moscow, the timing of the International Refugee Conference in Damascus yesterday and today was chosen with the date of the US election in mind, and the fact that the Kremlin could not guarantee a second term for its preferred candidate Trump. This suggests that Russia knows that US policy in Syria will not change under Biden and that Washington's boycott of the conference is for media consumption, similar to what happened before the 2016 Astana conference and the Sochi (National Dialogue) conference in 2018. Indeed, solutions in Syria have been restricted to Russian measures, agreements and treaties since 2015. This means that entrusting the issue to Moscow started before the Trump era and will not end when he leaves the White House on 20 January.

US President Donald J. Trump hosts a campaign rally at the Lancaster Airport in Lititz, Pennsylvania on 26 October 2020. [Tayfun Coşkun - Anadolu Agency]

US President Donald Trump hosts a campaign rally in Lititz, Pennsylvania on 26 October 2020 [Tayfun Coşkun/Anadolu Agency]

The Syrian opposition coalition, meanwhile, has continued to bury its head in the sand as its regular way of dealing with a changing reality. The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) that declared its "reservations" and refused to hold an international conference on refugees in Damascus is the same SNC which rejected the Astana track when it was promoted in late 2015 and early 2016. It then came back and took part at Turkey's insistence.

Although the International Refugee Conference is a Russian idea, it is also a propaganda opportunity for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad ahead of the presidential election expected to be held next year. There is a similar atmosphere to that which preceded the 2018 National Dialogue Conference in Sochi and it is being attended by Astana parties and representatives of neighbouring countries, so it represents a degree of international legitimacy for the conference and its outcomes. The presence of the UN representative in Damascus as an observer gives the conference the dimension that Moscow seeks as a first step towards establishing a new path under a humanitarian pretext to accompany the Astana military track; together they encircle the already limited Geneva political track.

READ: Ex-German detainee in Syria joins lawsuits against Assad regime torture

Moscow's pretence against the opposition in Astana and Sochi is being repeated in Damascus, on the cusp of a new White House era by which Moscow and Iran, as well as Turkey (an ally of the SNC that rejects the conference), are seeking to test the US President-elect before he takes office. In this way, they will determine who the nominal "candidate" will be to stand against Al-Assad. It will also determine the degree of the changes necessary in the new constitution that will be presented as a token of friendship to Biden, who knows that the Astana trio — Russia, Iran and Turkey — are on his list of friends in the post-Arab/Israeli normalisation phase.

This article first appeared in Al-Araby Al-Jadded on 9 November 2020

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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