What are the prospects for Pedersen’s step-for-step approach to succeed in Syria? 

The United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen meeting with members of the “Middle Third” bloc (civil society) before the beginning of the Syrian Constitutional Committee’s talks in Geneva - 17 October 2021 (Violin Martin)

The United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen meeting with members of the “Middle Third” bloc (civil society) before the beginning of the Syrian Constitutional Committee’s talks in Geneva - 17 October 2021 (Violin Martin)


Enab Baladi – Diana Rahima

The United Nations (UN) Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen has been urging towards a step-for-step approach, as if it was the final solution for the Syrian file, especially after talks by the Syrian constitutional Committee (SCC) reached a deadlock in Geneva and Pedersen’s disappointment for failing to reach a political solution between the Syrian regime and opposition.

Pedersen’s step-for-step approach based on the cornerstone of American-Russian rapprochement on the Syrian file is still in the brainstorming phase requiring additional rounds of consultations, as the rapprochement between the two countries has not begun yet.

The South Syria Deal: The beginning of US-Russian rapprochement

Part of the rapprochement between Russia and the United States on Syria was achieved in the so-called “South Syria Deal,” when Washington abandoned the Syrian opposition in Daraa and gave Russia’s military police the upper hand there.

Washington used to support the opposition in Syria by openly training fighters to combat the Islamic State (IS) at the US al-Tanf military base in Homs governorate or by secretly training opposition fighters in Daraa by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to protect Washington’s regional allies in the region (Israel and Jordan). Nevertheless, Iran’s participation in the Astana talks in 2017 transformed the situation, and the South Deal was signed with Russia.

On 28 June 2018, the United States stopped supporting the Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions in Daraa, while Russian warplanes launched a battle alongside Syrian regime forces in the region.

At that time, Enab Baladi obtained a letter directed from the US to opposition factions, which read, “We in the United States government understand the difficult circumstances you are facing now, and we continue to advise the Russians and the Syrian regime not to take any military action that would break the de-escalation agreement in southwestern Syria.”

“We understand that you have to make your decision according to your interests and the interests of your people and factions as you perceive them. You should not base your decision on the assumption or expectation of a US military intervention,” the letter added.

“You must make your decision considering your interests and the interests of your people. This consideration and decision are in your hands only.” The letter was interpreted as a US declaration of withdrawal from the file of southern Syria and from supporting opposition military factions. 

On 27 June 2018, the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar cited informed Arab sources saying that the US had offered Russia the launch of the US-Gulf-Israeli axis in Palestine in return for granting Moscow the upper hand in Syria.

The sources described the US offer as “generous,” as it entailed Washington’s recognition of Russian interests in Damascus, which the US considered a pure Russian sphere of influence. In return, Russia was required to reduce Iran’s role and facilitate the “Deal of the Century.” 

Undisclosed deals

Recently, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) extended the authorization of humanitarian aid delivery through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing for another six months without new voting or objection from Russia, which used to veto similar resolutions in previous years. 

Charles Lister, a senior fellow, and director of the Syria and Counterterrorism and Extremism programs at the Middle East Institute, wrote on Twitter that three reliable diplomatic sources told him that Russia planned to spoil the extension decision of cross-border aid delivery until the administration of US President Joe Biden softened sanctions on INGOs working with the Syrian regime. 

Lister added that the quid pro quo included granting INGOs (International non-governmental organizations) powers to work with the al-Assad regime, permitting UN aid work in “early recovery” in Syria, supporting more cross-line aid from Damascus, and facilitating things like the Lebanon gas/electricity deal via Syria.

The US Treasury Department has announced a study to amend sanctions against the Syrian regime to exclude some NGOs in Syria.

A statement by the US Treasury Department released on 24 November 2021 said that amendments to sanctions imposed on the regime would be to expand an existing authorization related to certain activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Syria.

Some NGOs operating in Syria support the regime, mainly the Syria Trust for Development that is linked to Bashar al-Assad’s wife, Asma al-Assad, and has extensive networking with local organizations. Another NGO is the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) which oversees aid delivery projects in the regime’s areas and is accused of corruption and serving the regime’s political agenda.    

A change of the regime or its behavior?

In October 2021, the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper reported a secret Jordanian document proposing a new approach to dealing with the Syrian regime.

The document included steps to achieve a gradual change in the regime’s behavior, leading up to the withdrawal of all foreign forces that entered Syria after 2011 and recognizing the “legitimate interests” of Russia there.

A senior unnamed western official, who read the document, confirmed that it was discussed between Arab leaders, including Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who tackled it with US President Joe Biden in Washington in July, and Russian President Vladimir Putin in August 2021.

The document’s contents converge with Pedersen’s “step by step” approach, which he proposed again as an attempt to achieve rapprochement between the Russian and US positions in the Syrian file.

Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs cited a statement attributed to Pedersen during his visit to Tehran on 16 January, after meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian. 

The Ministry cited Pedersen as saying, “The situation in Syria is stable,” confirming that “no party is talking about a regime change in the country under current circumstances.” 

To verify the statement, Enab Baladi contacted Pedersen’s office but did not receive an answer till the preparation time of this report. 

The secret document suggested that Jordan test the waters with Damascus before expanding contacts with the regime. Experts have therefore sought to draft an “executive roadmap” over how to achieve the “step-for-step” approach that would cover necessary files like changing the behavior of the regime, the peace process, resolution 2254, the Syrian Constitutional Committee, Iran’s role, the return of refugees, exemption from sanctions, and reconstruction in Syria.

Where does the Syrian opposition stand on Pedersen’s new approaches?

The co-president of the opposition’s side of the Constitutional Committee, Hadi al-Bahra, told Enab Baladi that UNSC Resolution 2254 and 2118, which had adopted the Geneva Statement on 30 June 2012, had made it clear that the objective of the political process in Syria is to achieve a radical and inclusive political transition, the only solution that could achieve security, stability, and peace, not change in the behavior of the regime.

Al-Bahra said that cosmetic reforms would only prolong the suffering of the Syrian people and deterioration of the economic situation and expose Syria to further disintegration.

He added that the international community’s continued neglect of those realities would lead to serious consequences, the loss of the future of Syrian generations, and reinforce extremism.

Al-Bahra additionally added that the international community knows too well that “there is no humanitarian solution to humanitarian crises” because the root causes of this human tragedy are political, and the solutions are also political.

A serious and real solution deals with the fundamental causes that led to the revolution of the Syrian people as a result of policies of repression, tyranny, corruption, and crimes committed against them. Therefore, no sustainable solution can be expected to deal with the symptoms and neglect the injustice suffered by the Syrian people and their aspirations for freedom, dignity, justice, and democracy.

In this context, any plans and initiatives based on providing political and diplomatic concessions for solving humanitarian issues in favor of refloating a criminal regime that destroyed its country’s infrastructure are a clear violation of all international laws and norms and a violation of the foundations of justice.

Al-Bahra added that any efforts or initiatives that do not lead to the full and strict implementation of UNSC Resolutions 2254 and 2118, including the Geneva Statement, are a circumvention of those resolutions and a violation of the legitimate rights of the Syrian people.

Samira Moubayed, a researcher, academic, and member of the Constitutional Committee, told Enab Baladi that in the absence of effective tools to achieve Pedersen’s approach and the absence of a drastic change in the political negotiating mechanism that has led to failure at all levels over the past decade, the chances of success of this approach are small because it brought nothing new to the negotiation table. 

Any approach to ending the Syrian crisis requires operational tools, an action plan, a time period, and a clear objective, Moubayed said, adding that these factors are not yet clear in Pedersen’s approach.

Moubayed said that the main hurdle to Pedersen’s approach is that it is based within the same previous framework of military polarization and the intransigence of the authority resulting from the armed conflict. The continuity of these circumstances prolongs the conflict and prevents any step towards peace or constructive negotiations. 

In view of the parameters presented by Pedersen, there are no possible achievements to the step-for-step approach other than to prolong the lifespan of de facto powers and the suffering of the Syrian people, Moubayed added.

No political solution without a Syrian-Syrian rapprochement

As for the Russian position, the former diplomat and adviser of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Rami al-Shaer, told Enab Baladi that Russia supports Pedersen’s step-for-step approach towards a political solution to the Syrian conflict. 

Al-Shaer added that for the past decade, both the authority in Damascus and the Syrian opposition have been taking steps against each other and failed to reach a fundamental result or come to understand that the main problem impeding any progress towards resolving the Syrian crisis and alleviating the suffering of the Syrian people lies in them.  

Al-Shaer made a special mention to the president of the regime, Bashar al-Assad and his team, and the leading body in the Syrian opposition, i.e., the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) and the representatives of the Constitutional Committee’s small group.

According to al-Shaer, behavioral change is needed for all Syrian parties, primarily in Damascus. The demands by some politicians in the opposition to change the regime in Damascus do not help to find a solution to the Syrian crisis, and Syrians must abide by any approach suggested by the UN.

Change cannot happen in Syria without a Syrian-Syrian rapprochement, al-Shaer said.

He added that some of those close to al-Assad believe that the Gulf States have started to back down on their position towards the regime and will contribute to ending the crisis in Syria. However, these people and all other Syrian parties must come around Algeria’s efforts and understand that these efforts aim not to refloat the regime in its current status, as it is now in Damascus, but to, first and foremost, save the Syrian people.

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