Assad regime ‘could face tough curbs if it blocks political process’

Syrians take part in an anti-regime demonstration in the opposition-controlled town of Maaret Al-Numan, Idlib. (AFP)
Updated 30 September 2018
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Assad regime ‘could face tough curbs if it blocks political process’

  • Top US diplomat Jim Jeffrey says Washington will pursue ‘a strategy of isolation’
  • Assad’s allies Russia and Iran, as well as China, have made some investments in the country, but they want other countries to share the burden

NEW YORK:  The US will pursue “a strategy of isolation,” including sanctions, with its allies if President Bashar Assad holds up a political process aimed at ending Syria’s seven-year war, said a top US diplomat for Syria.

Jim Jeffrey, the US special representative for Syria, said Washington would work with countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East to impose tough international sanctions if Assad’s regime failed to cooperate on rewriting the Syrian constitution as a prelude to elections.

“If the regime does that, we believe that then we can go after it the way we went after Iran before 2015 — with really tough international sanctions,” Jeffrey said, referring to secondary sanctions against Tehran for its nuclear program.

He added: “Even if the UN Security Council won’t pass them we will just do it through the EU, we will do it through our Asian allies, and then we will make it our business to make life as miserable as possible for that flopping cadaver of a regime and let the Russians and Iranians, who made this mess, get out of it.”

Assad’s allies Russia and Iran, as well as China, have made some investments in the country, but they cannot afford the cost of rebuilding and want other countries to share the burden.

Western countries have said they will not approve reconstruction funding for Syria, or drop sanctions, without a political settlement. US sanctions are already making it hard for foreign companies to work there.

Jeffrey has been charged by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to oversee Washington’s role in a political process as a US-led coalition cleans up the last remaining Daesh militants.

A recent agreement between Turkey and Russia that averted a Syrian regime offensive in Idlib, the last major area under rebel control, and the accidental downing of a Russian war plane by Syrian forces was an opportunity to push for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 that covers ending conflict in Syria, Jeffrey said.

The UN Security Council, which includes Russia and the US, mandated UN envoy Staffan de Mistura to get a deal on a new constitution, new elections and a reform of Syria’s governance.

Formation of a constitutional committee was agreed at a Syrian peace conference in the Russian ski resort of Sochi in January. It is up to de Mistura to decide whom to pick and he has said he will select about 50 people, including supporters of the government, the opposition and independents to participate.

The Syrian regime at first agreed to the plan, but later rejected it. Its submission of a list of names to the UN follows a meeting this month between Assad and his main backer, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

Russia has held the balance of power in Syria, both on the battlefield and in the UN-led peace talks, for the past two years. It has helped Assad occupy huge amounts of lost territory in Syria without persuading him to agree to any political reforms.

But nine rounds of talks, most of them in Geneva, have failed to bring the warring sides together to end the conflict.

Meeting on the sidelines of the annual UN General Assembly, foreign ministers from the US, Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Britain and Saudi Arabia called on de Mistura to convene the constitutional committee and report back on progress in October.

While an offensive on Idlib was averted, Washington still worries that the Syrian regime could use chemical weapons.

President Donald Trump has twice authorized US airstrikes against regime targets as punishment for chemical weapons use.

“It is not off the table because the regime is stuck with only half the territory and population of Syria under its control, and the lowest hanging fruit is Idlib because the other areas you deal with the US directly and Turkey directly,” said Jeffrey. 


Treasury Secretary: US ‘could not be happier’ with Bahrain outcome

Updated 19 min ago
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Treasury Secretary: US ‘could not be happier’ with Bahrain outcome

  • Mnuchin confident of raising the first $4 billion soon

MANAMA: Jared Kushner’s “workshop” aimed at securing economic prosperity for Palestine closed with optimistic forecasts from President Donald Trump’s special adviser that it could be the basis for a forthcoming political deal with Israel.

Kushner told journalists at a post-event briefing: “I think that people are all leaving very energized, very pleasantly surprised at how many like-minded people they see. It is a solvable problem economically, and the reason why we thought it was important to lay out the economic vision before we lay out the political vision is because we feel we need people to see what the future can look like.

“The Palestinian people have been promised a lot of things over the years that have not come true. We want to show them that this is the plan, this is what can happen if there is a peace deal.”

The next stage, before a political deal is attempted, will be to get feedback from the event and agree to commitments for the $50 billion package for Palestine and other regional economies.

“I think you need $50 billion to really do this the right way, to get a paradigm shift,” Kushner added.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said: “I could not be happier how this has gone,” adding that he was “highly confident we will soon have the first $4 billion. It’s going to be like a hot initial public offering.”

Most of the attendees at the event in Manama, Bahrain, gave Kushner’s economic proposals a serious hearing and agreed it was a useful exercise. Mohammed Al-Shaikh, Saudi minister of state, said: “Can it be done? Yes it can, because it was done before. In the mid-1990s to about the year 2000 there was a global coordinated effort by the US and other countries. I was at the World Bank at the time. I saw it. If we could do it then with significantly less money we can do it again.”

Others warned, however, that there was still a long way to go on the political aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and Middle East peace envoy, said a political deal was essential.

“This is an economic plan that, if it is implemented, is going to do enormous good for the Palestinian people. But it isn’t a substitute for the politics. There will be no economic peace. There will be a peace that will be a political component and an economic component. The economy can help the politics and the politics is necessary for the economy to flourish.

“The politics has got to be right in this sense as well. The obvious sense people talk about is how do you negotiate the contours of the boundaries of a Palestinian state in a two state solution,” Blair said.

Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, highlighted the work the fund has done in conflict situations. “We had an exceptional result in Rwanda, and a good economic outcome in Mozambique,” she said. But she contrasted this with disappointing results in other African conflicts.

Lagarde said that the aim of the economic plan should be to create jobs. “The focus should be on job-intensive industries, like agriculture, tourism and infrastructure.”

Willem Buiter, special economic adviser to US banking giant Citi, said there were obstacles to the Kushner plan succeeding. “Necessary conditions for any progress are peace, safety and security. And there must be high-quality governance and the rule of law in Palestine,” he said.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Jared Kushner believes the conflict is a ‘solvable problem economically.’

• The senior adviser vows to lay out political plans at the right time.

• Expert urges external funding in the form of grants or equity, rather than loans.

He also suggested external funding should be in the form of grants or equity, rather than loans. “We should not burden a country trying to escape from its past with high debts,” he added.

Some attendees warned of the risks to investor funds in the current political situation in the Middle East. 

But Khalid Al-Rumaihi, chief executive of the Bahrain Economic Development Board, said: “Risk is not new to the region. We’ve tackled it for the past 30 to 40 years, but that has not stopped investment flowing in.

“Investors trade risk for return, and the Middle East has learned to cope with risk and conflict. There are pockets where the risk is high and Palestine is one of them. But I remain positive. The return in the region is higher to compensate for the risk,” he added.

At a session of regional finance ministers, Mohammed Al-Jadaan of Saudi Arabia said: “The region is in desperate need of prosperity and hope. There is a way forward, but you need political commitment.”

UAE Finance Minister Obaid Al-Tayer added: “We are decoupling politics from economics. If it’s the only initiative on the table we should all give it a chance.”