On May 17, the US House of Representatives voted to impose sanctions on «anyone involved with the humanitarian and security crisis in Syria». This is exactly how The Hill described the resolution by US legislators that names the «people who have financial relationships with the Syrian government or businesses controlled by the administration» as the targets of the planned American sanctions. The following quote by Rep. Paul Ryan makes it quite clear that the members of Congress do not share President Trump’s view of the practicality of working with Russia to fight the terrorists who are at war against Damascus. He stated, «Assad’s crimes against humanity cannot go unanswered. With these new sanctions, we will continue to tighten the screws on the Syrian regime and its most prominent backers, including Iran and Russia».
The 45-year-old speaker of the House of Representatives is well-known as a stalwart proponent of a more conservative path for the Republican Party, and he spoke out against Donald Trump’s candidacy during the election campaign. Ryan once expected to make it to the White House himself as Mitt Romney’s vice president, but things didn’t work out that way. And now, in his position as the leader of the Republican majority in the lower house of Congress, he is not so much helping the president to solve problems as much as he is creating new ones. Syria is just one of those problems. Ryan’s anti-Iranian initiatives and his eagerness for a third-party investigation into «Russian interference» in the results of the presidential campaign are also on record.
Under Ryan’s leadership, the Republican congressmen unanimously supported the proposals to introduce new sanctions against Syria and its allies, although the legislation was sponsored by their political rival, Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The author of the bill makes no bones about the fact that he was attempting to «put a crimp in Russian and Iranian efforts to support Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime». Without naming Moscow or Tehran directly, Engel warned, «If you do business with Assad, the blood of the Syrian people is on your hands, and you’re going to get caught up in these sanctions».
By this logic, the sanctions should apply to all countries that provide humanitarian aid to Syria. In accordance with a UN resolution, as of last November any organizations that render humanitarian assistance in Syria have the right to import goods into the country so long as they have a notarized statement from the Syrian embassy in their country of origin. These shipments, under the auspices of the UN, have provided food to over two million Syrians a year since 2014.
Yet Congress remains silent about the armed opposition in Syria, which is still built on a framework of terrorist factions. In the view of US legislators, they have played no part in the country’s humanitarian catastrophe, the deaths of many thousands of Syrians, or the efforts to derail any potential agreement with Damascus. On Capitol Hill, these groups in Syria are seen only from the perspective of their essential role in the war against government troops. There can be no doubt that America’s congressmen are pressing for Assad’s ouster. The bill passed on May 17 is aimed squarely at this goal, and if approved by the Senate, the president will be faced with the question of whether to renege on the Trump administration’s much-touted vow to step up the fight against terrorism in the Middle East.
Indication that the US is moving in this direction is also evident in the American stance on negotiations with the Syrian opposition, the sixth round of which is currently underway in Geneva. In a May 15 State Dept. briefing, Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones shocked journalists with his view of the Syrian issue. In his opinion, Assad is guilty of breaching international law, including the Law of Armed Conflict. Naturally Stuart Jones also accused Damascus’s Russian allies of violating the laws of war. There’s no sense in reiterating what this diplomat and adviser to Secretary of State Tillerson had to say about how to handle Moscow in the Middle East. It’s more important to understand the extent to which the views of this acting assistant secretary of state are reflected in President Trump’s policy.
And one might ask: does the new US administration even have a Middle East strategy? This question stems from the fact that on the very first day of the talks in Geneva (May 16) Washington approved the unworkable stance taken by Assad’s opponents, who demanded that Assad first agree to voluntarily and immediately step down as president of the Syrian Arab Republic before they would engage in a direct dialog with officials in Damascus. That position looks like even more of a no-win today, when the zones under government control in Syria are expanding, some of Damascus’s armed opponents are taking part in the peace talks in Astana, a ceasefire is holding in much of the country, and normal life in the cities of northern and western Syria, including in Aleppo, is returning. In this context, how can we interpret the American politicians’ entreaties that the Syrian leader wage war on terrorists «in accordance with international rules»?
In our mind, the issue is really about the formulation of «new guidelines» for the US strategy in the Middle East. The latest changes being proposed are truly dangerous. In particular, one could point to the April 2017 report by a team established by the Congressional Bipartisan Policy Center to submit recommendations for addressing the crises in the Middle East. (Seeking Stability at Sustainable Cost: Principles for a New U.S. Strategy in the Middle East. Report of the Task Force on Managing Disorder in the Middle East. April 2017).
That paper recommends that Congress recognize that Russia’s engagement in the Middle East is at odds with US interests. The Trump administration is invited to relinquish its illusions of a partnership with the Kremlin in the fight against international terrorism and to abandon its hope of sowing dissent between Moscow and Tehran.
And the most incendiary recommendation from the Congressional Bipartisan Policy Center’s Task Force on Managing Disorder in the Middle East states: «If stability proves impossible within Syria and Iraq’s current cartography, the U.S. government should no longer regard questioning of national borders as a strict taboo».
And this raises the question – directed neither toward the tacticians on the «task force» nor to Paul Ryan or Eliot Engel, but rather toward President Trump and his team – how large a component of US foreign-policy strategy is this refusal to recognize the existing state borders in the Middle East? The answer to this question will determine the potential for any real cooperation between the US and Russia in this region