The authors David W. Leach and Kamal Alam concluded in an article published by National Interest on April 5 that Syria needs to reduce sanctions, and the United States needs something in return as well.
A potential deal must therefore be concluded, likely to be preceded by confidence-building measures between the US and Syrian governments.
US President Donald Trump appealed to the Syrian government at a press conference on March 19 to collaborate with the United States to find photojournalist Austin Tess, who was missing in Syria in 2012, and to help release him.
Reports indicate that the American journalist is hostage to an unknown group.
In fact, last year the Syrian government released an American blogger.
The return of US hostages held abroad is known to be a priority for President Trump in top foreign policy.
According to the authors, this point embodies a potential opportunity to start a dialogue between the United States and Syria.
Just as the release of an American last year by the Taliban was the beginning of the dialogue between the United States and Afghanistan.
There was indeed public recognition of the official low-level contact between the United States and Syria in June last year, so this is not entirely outside the scope of the plans, despite all the negative perceptions of the Syrian government in the West.
Recently, some of America’s allies in the region, such as the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain, have begun to restore relations with Damascus, in addition to the terrible humanitarian and economic situation in Syria.
It seems that this is a moment when bilateral dialogue may lead to some fruits for both countries.
We must work to find an American-Syrian understanding, first and foremost, because it saves lives, and also because it enhances American interests.
Saving lives is usually not enough for America, but if combined with promoting interests, then criteria for carefully managed dialogue are created.
Ironically, according to the authors, that Trump’s request to Syria to help in the Austin Tice case came at the stage of the spread of the Coronavirus, the United States may consider easing a certain level of sanctions, in terms of alleviating suffering, if the Coronavirus spreads in Syria significantly.
Many American news channels have arrived in Syria since the acute phase of the war ended.
The reports of these channels are unanimous in that sanctions, along with the deteriorating economy and the war economy, have created more difficult living conditions for ordinary Syrians, the worst stages of the war itself.
On the ground, the Syrians seem to be in desperate need of help, suffering from other diseases outside the war, in addition to the re-emergence of some diseases that were previously eradicated, such as smallpox and tuberculosis, which affected both young and old alike.
Before the emergence of the economic crisis in Lebanon last fall, there was a positive feeling among most Syrians.
The war had ended outside Idlib, and the Syrian government had regained control of at least 70% of the country, and the major Arab states were reforming relations with Damascus.
There was a clear feeling that Syria could slowly get out of the swamp.
In the end, there are Western sanctions imposed on the country forty years ago – the Syrians know how to get around them.
However, the financial crisis in Lebanon – the banking outlet of Syrian money – has harmed the Syrian economy in a few months, perhaps more than what the Western sanctions have caused throughout the war years.
During the war, and as a result of the sanctions that excluded Syrian businesses outside the global financial system, the Syrian economy became more dependent than ever on Lebanese banks.
Now, it has become difficult to access Syrian funds, with the Lebanese banks tightly controlling hard currency withdrawals and transfers abroad in order to prevent capital flight, so these funds are virtually trapped.
The wealthy class in Syria was not only affected by the Lebanese crisis, the Syrians from the middle class who live from the benefits of their savings in Lebanese banks are no longer able to access their money, and as a result, inflation has increased in Syria.
Trump’s foreign policy, based on deals, appears here. From Washington’s perspective, there must be something of value in return.
US officials say that the sanctions are not to change the “system” but to make a difference in its behavior; Words do not convince Damascus.
The level of trust between the United States and Syria is almost nonexistent.
But if there are clear American interests that can be identified against those of Damascus, then there are those in Washington and Damascus who are willing to listen.
The United States knows very well that Damascus wants to reduce its sanctions: especially in the areas of health and education, from building materials to rebuilding hospitals and schools, to medical equipment and computers for students.
Syrian officials have repeatedly demanded this as a priority before removing sanctions imposed on Syrian political figures and businessmen: Because the Syrian government must maintain a social contract with its citizens at least, and the most important thing is that easing the sanctions will help save lives, and may open the way for more humanitarian assistance.
So what will the United States do in return?
It is no secret to anyone what the Trump administration’s foreign policy has sought in the long term in Syria and it is seeing a significant decline in the Iranian presence there, along with helping the journalist Austin Tice return.
This may now be the prelude to starting an American-Syrian dialogue.
With the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Oman and other Arab countries improving ties with Syria, this may provide space for Damascus to achieve balance with Iran.
On the other hand, Russia, who also want to see the low size of the Iranian presence in Syria, have tried to strengthen and rebuild Syrian institutions, from more efficient governance to enhancing professionalism in the military security services.
Moscow wants to ensure that its strategic position in Syria is preserved.
Therefore, a potential deal must be concluded, likely to be preceded by confidence-building measures, such as licensing private US agencies to send a number of humanitarian aid shipments in exchange for some humanitarian indications by the Syrian government, such as helping to release the hostages.
And then efforts can be intensified until specific sanctions are lifted in exchange for reforms in local administration, the rule of law, counter-terrorism measures and other issues of concern to America.
Then we get to the big items to soften regular sanctions and the Iran issue.
The case of Sudan can be a model, as it was placed, like Syria, on the original US State Department’s 1979 list of states sponsoring terrorism, but it is now about to be removed from the list.
The Obama and Trump administrations dealt with an isolated government and imposed penalties over and over again.
US officials essentially decided that the sanctions in the end were not successful, and that the phased mutual concessions process would be better for the interests of the United States.
Syria traditionally has a much better regional position than Sudan, and it overlooks Iraq, Turkey and Israel, which is a more important geopolitical site in the Middle East than Sudan.
The sanctions will not succeed in Syria either.
Just as waiting for Assad to fall is not a strategic situation, it is just a wish.
The sanctions regime is beneficial if it is used as a means to achieve a negotiated end and not only as a punitive measure, the United States may hold on to the key – the economic key, but now, as America’s main Arab allies become more supportive of President Assad, US policy may change.
This may also create some American influence over Turkey regarding the reconciliation of Ankara and Damascus, which may be the key to ending the last stages of the war in Idlib and elsewhere in northern Syria.
Syria’s stability is important not only to the suffering population or to regional security, but also to stopping the refugee crisis that has already driven European policies toward right-wing nationalism.
Syria is the hub for dealing with all of these issues, and accordingly it is in the interest of the United States to deal with it.