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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Economic leverage could be the new mechanism to get Syrians to negotiating table

But once there, will they be making the decisions? 

European Union foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini  with the European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides (L) and United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura (R) at an EU meeting on September 21, 2017to discuss the way forward for Syria at the 72nd United Nations General Assembly. But where were the Syrians? Darren Ornitz / Reuters
European Union foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini with the European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides (L) and United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura (R) at an EU meeting on September 21, 2017to discuss the way forward for Syria at the 72nd United Nations General Assembly. But where were the Syrians? Darren Ornitz / Reuters

Throughout the past week, meetings held on the side lines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York have been focusing on how to end the war in Syria. It started last Sunday night meeting with US secretary of state Rex Tillerson and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, committing to "deconflicting military operation in Syria" — diplomatic jargon for deciding to avoid having their armies and proxies kill each other in the simultaneous ongoing battles.

As the week progressed, officials and diplomats The National spoke to indicated that US and Russian agreements on Syria seem to be paving a path forward for how the conflict will be de-escalated, even if a solution has yet to be fully developed. The path seems to be set on using "economic leverage" to get Syrians to the negotiating table.

After more than six years of war, entire cities such as Homs and Deir Ezzour need reconstruction and the money for that will largely be coming from abroad. So, says one Western diplomat, "The money will be tied to getting Syrians to commit to a political process." In several meetings this week, financial support was spoken of as a mechanism to motivate the Syrian regime and internal opposition forces to agree a political settlement.

Brett McGurk, the US special envoy for the global coalition to defeat ISIL, referred to this in a briefing on Friday. "The reality is that nobody in the international community that we have spoken to is prepared to invest in any significant way for the reconstruction of territories under control of the Syrian regime, absent a credible political horizon that’s going to lead to a political transition."

That transition, he emphasised, must be supported by a majority of the Syrian people, otherwise "the reality is the international community will not be coming in with significant reconstruction assistance.".

Sixteen countries, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the US, Turkey and Qatar met on Thursday and issued a statement echoing Mr McGurk almost word for word.

The European Union's High Representative Federica Mogherini announced that Brussels will host another pledging conference for rebuilding Syria. The EU will launch "a Brussels process" to convene different partners to support stabilisation and reconstruction in Syria. But, she stressed, "The conference this year is not only about humanitarian support, it's also about our support of the political process in Geneva."

As UN envoy to Syria Staffan De Mistura continues his efforts to jump-start the Geneva talks, he was given further support in New York this week. Officials in two ministerial meetings said the Geneva process was the recognised international mechanism to end the war in Syria. In the joint statement, the 16 "like-minded countries" on Syria re-asserted that "there is only a political solution to the Syria crisis to be arrived at through full implementation of UNSCR [UN Security Council resolution] 2254. The ministers reiterated strong support for UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, (and) UN-led efforts in Geneva."

Speaking at Thursday's event, Ms Mogherini said, "With the progress made in Astana and on the ground, it is now time for the parties in Geneva to start serious work." There was renewed support from Arab and Western officials for the UN process. They don't want the Astana talks — sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran — to be a substitute for the Geneva talks.

The Syrian opposition were not left out. The foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Canada and Sweden, to name but a few, made a point of meeting with Riad Hijab, former prime minister of Syria and now general coordinator of the High Negotiations Committee for the Syrian opposition, who was also in New York before he heads to Saudi Arabia for a meeting of the Syrian opposition next month.

On the other hand, Syrian foreign minister Walid Al Muallem, representing the Syrian government, had limited meetings with allies including Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. He and Mr Hijab and Mr Al Muallem both met separately with UN officials. Yet at all the significant high level meetings involving decisions on Syria, there was no one present representing Syria.

Linking foreign reconstruction money to a political process may bring Syrians back to the negotiating table but once there, they are unlikely to be the decision-makers