2019 should be “the year of reality check” for the Assad regime and its backers, including Russia, to accept that there can only be a political solution to the conflict in Syria, the United States Special Envoy for the country said on Saturday.
After eight years of a conflict, which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced half the country’s pre-war population, the regime of Bashar Al Assad is pushing the prospects for peace “further and further away” by pursuing a military solution, Joel Rayburn, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the State Department and Special Envoy for Syria, told the World Economic Forum meeting at the Dead Sea.
Repeated UN-backed efforts to find a political resolution have failed with Mr Assad refusing to make any compromises to the opposition which has voiced its willingness to reach a settlement.
Mr Rayburn said on Saturday that what split the sides in the Syrian conflict is a difference between those who believe their aims can be achieved through a military solution – such as the regime – and those who believe there can only be a political solution.
He said that the US believes the only solution is political and that by now “that reality should have sunk in”.
“2019 should be the year of a reality check for the parties in this conflict and this is the year to switch from the battlefield to the negotiation table,” he said.
He said this reality needed to be understood by all parties including Russia and Iran, which are backing the regime militarily. Mr Rayburn said that while Washington did not take a stand that Bashar Al Assad must step down as Syria’s president for there to be a peaceful resolution to the conflict, that the US believes “there must be a political process that has buy-in from all political parties to find a sustainable solution”.
What the US has said repeatedly, Mr Rayburn explained, is that it is for the Syrian people to decide their own leadership and government through a political process, which they should lead.
“There should be a government in Syria that ceases to be hostile to its people and ceases to be hostile to its neighbours,” he said.
Only then will the millions of Syrian refugees living in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey choose to return home.
Otherwise, he said, they would be too afraid to face the “same killing machine” that has repeatedly used chemical weapons on its own citizens.
“People were chased from their homes by a regime that terrorised them and continues to terrorise them,” he said.
Mr Rayburn said that another obstacle for reconciliation is the question of the fate of more than 200,000 Syrians who have disappeared into the Assad regime’s prisons.
On the refugee issue, he acknowledged that Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey are bearing a disproportionate burden in hosting millions of Syrian refugees. Each is hoping for their return to happen as soon as possible.
However, their burden was unlikely to be relieved without proper reconciliation which could lead to sustainable reconstruction efforts.
“The vast majority of destruction in Syria has been done by the Assad regime with the help of the Russian air force and Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Al Quds Force,” Mr Rayburn said.
“At this stage, those who are talking about reconstruction, [what] they are really asking for the funding of a military solution to the issue.”
This was not acceptable because it would be allowing the international community to fund the reconstruction of what the Assad regime and its main patrons, Russia and Iran, have destroyed but without changing the nature of governance in Syria.
This would mean the refugees would not feel safe and not choose to go home, Mr Rayburn said.
“We have to be talking about a political process that has accountability for the atrocities that have gone before,” he said.
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The US is leading a coalition including the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces to defeat ISIS. However, US President Donald Trump has said that this has been achieved and there is concern about his plans to reduce its military presence in Syria and what that could do to the delicate balance on the ground.
“We have said that the US led coalition along with our local partners have been successful in destroying the physical caliphate of ISIS but we haven’t said that is the end of the story with ISIS,” Mr Rayburn said.
"We have to keep the pressure against ISIS so they can't reconstitute themselves and present a new threat."
He said that local communities have to be “inoculated” against ISIS coming back and this can be achieved by creating a secure environment so they can pursue their livelihoods.
He compared what is required now to “law enforcement” and that the focus needed to be on breaking up any clandestine terrorist network that ISIS now operates.
“A lot of progress has been made but the job is not done,” he acknowledged.
He said that since ISIS was in control of territory including Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, that only two years later, its self-declared caliphate has been physically destroyed. “That would not have been expected [at the time],” Mr Rayburn said.
However, “ISIS turned Raqqa into one big bomb” and tried to provoke as much damage as possible.
The US is helping in the rebuilding of Raqqa, Mr Rayburn said.
“I’ve been to Raqqa and the people are resilient and they just need the right conditions. The city is already coming back.”