As on other issues discussed in Helsinki, the seeming US-Russian convergences on some Syrian issues unravelled rapidly. Both the Presidents agreed that humanitarian assistance to Syria was important. President Putin talked about coordination between the small group (of the US, UK, Germany, France, Saudi Arabia and Jordan) and the Astana process of Russia, Turkey and Iran; President Trump did not demur. However, in a detailed media briefing on August 17, the State Department poured cold water on both of these ideas. It confirmed there would be “an enduring [US] presence in Syria”, not only until the ISIS is fully eradicated, but also until the local forces are trained to keep them from coming back. Further, it was stated that the “small group” had agreed that no humanitarian or reconstruction assistance can be extended to Syria until “a credible and irreversible political process is underway”. The clear implication is that the US would remain in Syria until the Assad government goes – this was the US strategy on Syria spelt out by then Secretary of State Tillerson in January. Also, Western humanitarian or rehabilitation assistance would only be extended to the area occupied by US-backed elements – the oil-rich one-third of Syria on the eastern bank of the Euphrates. Here too, the State Department announced that this responsibility has been taken over by its allies; the US budget for the Syria stabilization programme has been diverted to restoring and upgrading oil-producing infrastructure in north-eastern Syria.
The US position was also clearly conveyed by Secretary of State Pompeo to the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, in what was described as a “private” meeting. The State Department said they “agreed that … any discussion of reconstruction was premature, absent a political solution leading unalterably to both constitutional reform and free and fair elections”. They also stressed that the return of refugees can only happen when a secure environment has been created in Syria. There was no mention of the Astana process, whose meetings the UN Envoy has been attending (and also a middle-ranking US official). The UN envoy has also been made to change his stand hitherto that the early return of refugees should be facilitated and that humanitarian assistance to Syria is desperately required.
The United States is, of course, well aware that, with the strains on their economies and with the further pressure of US sanctions, none of the Astana three is in any position to extend significant assistance to Assad’s Syria. The consequence of US-Russia standoff is, therefore, that the de facto division of Syria will continue, with one part in dire economic straits and the other receiving recovery assistance.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Army successfully regained control of the southern and south-western parts of the country. Russian MFA announced that the Astana three would meet with the UN Envoy for Syria in September to discuss further steps in the Syrian political process that the three have been pursuing. Whether this meeting has any future, in the light of the clearly stated US position, remains to be seen. Turkey had been planning to host a summit with Russia, France and Germany on September 7 to discuss rehabilitation assistance to Syria. This again became a non-starter, once the US stated its views in this matter. It is, therefore, now proposed to hold a summit of the Astana three in Turkey on September 7.
August 30, 2018