Syrian Kurds push Washington for sanctions exemption

Kurds seek sanctions waiver as they try to jump-start negotiations with President Bashar Al Assad

By Bryant Harris, Oct 1, 2021

This article originally appeared in The National News.

The Kurdish-dominated administration in north-east Syria has once again asked the administration of President Joe Biden to waive sanctions on their region, even as it seeks to jump-start peace negotiations with President Bashar Al Assad’s regime.

A delegation representing the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the US-backed, Kurdish-dominated forces in the region, pushed their case for a waiver this week during meetings at the State Department and on Capitol Hill.

“We asked again this visit to give us a waiver for north-eastern Syria,” Syrian Democratic Council President Ilham Ahmed told The National on Friday. “I saw more seriousness this time and also more interest in the Congress.READ MORETurkey boosts military posture in north Syria after inconclusive talks with RussiaSubdued flows as restrictions relaxed on Jordan-Syria border crossingUS senators float Tunisia aid cuts and Lebanon assistance package

“We hope we’re going to get some results in the near future.”

Ms Ahmed’s 10-day trip to Washington comes immediately after a visit last month to Moscow, where she asked Russia to use its clout with Damascus to convince Mr Al Assad to enter into negotiations over an agreement that she hopes will lead to a decentralised, autonomous state in north-east Syria.

She said that she had also asked the Biden administration to push Russia towards that goal and help secure Kurdish representation in the long-stalled UN-backed peace process for Syria.

“We are pretty interested in direct talks with the Syrian government,” said Ms Ahmed. “And we ask our partners to play a positive role in getting us to find a solution with the Syrian government.”

A Kurdish fighter evacuating following Turkish artillery bombardment near the Afrin crossing in the northern Syrian region, after Syrian pro-government forces entered the region. George Ourfalian / AFP

Although several Arab states have started to normalise relations with Damascus after a decade of war, the US does not maintain diplomatic ties with the Assad government and has instead imposed stringent sanctions on Syria.

Congress first passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act in 2019, which states “that diplomatic and coercive economic means should be utilised to compel the government of Bashar Al Assad to halt its murderous attacks on the Syrian people and to support a transition to a government in Syria that respects the rule of law, human rights, and peaceful co-existence with its neighbours”.

It further takes aim at the Assad government and its international backers — as well as the Syrian Central Bank.

The council has asked the US for a sanctions waiver for months — so far, to no avail.

For fiscal year 2022, the State Department has requested $125 million in economic and stabilisation aid for Syria.

Because the US maintains an official policy of withholding aid from Assad-controlled areas in Syria, most of that assistance is likely to go to the Kurdish-dominated administration in the north-east.

But sanctions could hinder NGOs and US government contractors who have the task of delivering that assistance.

The State Department declined to comment.

The US has, however, tacitly backed a pipeline that would run through Syria to deliver natural gas from Egypt into Lebanon to help address the country’s fuel crisis amid its downwards political and economic spiral.

After returning from a visit to Lebanon last month, Democratic senators Chris Murphy and Chris Van Hollen told The National that the pipeline would not require a US sanctions waiver even though it runs through Syria.

But the council says that the sanctions have compounded the humanitarian crisis in the area under their control.

“As for the political solution in Syria, I don’t see it coming in the near future,” said Ms Ahmed. “However, freezing the aggression and the conflict is key to solving the issue and to focus on the humanitarian side.

“The humanitarian situation in Syria went into a real crisis or catastrophe.”

In addition to the sanctions on Syria writ large, the Assad government has restricted the flow of humanitarian aid — including Covid vaccines from the World Health Organisation — into the north-east. The council estimates that only 5 per cent of the population under its control has received a Covid vaccination.

Meanwhile, Turkey has cut off the water supply to the region while Turkish-backed forces continue to launch attacks on Kurdish fighters and administrative buildings.

Further complicating matters, Russia has used its clout at the UN Security Council to close three humanitarian aid crossings into Syria as part of its bid to route all foreign assistance through Damascus.

In the meantime, Ms Ahmed said that the Biden administration has committed to maintaining the 900 US troops in Syria who back the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units as a bulwark against Turkey and its allies, Damascus and ISIS sleeper cells.

Syrian Kurds take part in a protest in the northeastern city of Qamishli. Delil souleiman / AFP Photo

“Under this administration, what I’ve heard from top officials is that there will be no withdrawal,” said Ms Ahmed.

The US troop presence in Syria also has the backing of a narrow majority in Congress.

The House of Representatives last week voted down legislation that would have forced Mr Biden to withdraw troops from Syria after a year unless Congress passed a Syrian war authorisation.

The legislation, introduced by Democrat Jamaal Bowman, was defeated 141-286 with significant numbers of Democrats and Republicans voting on each side — a rare phenomenon in modern Washington.

Updated: October 2nd 2021, 10:20 AM