Could Trump or Clinton Hold the Key to Solving Syrian Crisis?

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A Syrian girl in Damascus pulls a cart with food after receiving aid from the UN World Food Program, May 11, 2016.
A Syrian girl in Damascus pulls a cart with food after receiving aid from the UN World Food Program, May 11, 2016.Credit: Amer Almohibany/AFP

A Facebook page was launched in Damascus this week: “Boycotting shopping for a week because of price hikes and the decline of the Syrian pound” – a lengthy title that doesn’t require much analysis. Nearly 30,000 web users signed up in support, while another 24,000 showed interest in the new page. They are all daily witnesses to the death of Syria. They feel the price rises for basic products and can’t be confident that, soon, they too won’t be joining the stream of refugees fleeing the country in order to survive.

Syrian websites that once advertised the prices of sugar, oil, fruits and vegetables once a week now have to update their prices daily. One reason is the instability of the Syrian pound (also known as the lira). It plummeted again this week to about 650 Syrian pounds to the dollar. Last month, rumors spread that the government had no more dollars to provide the public, sparking a panic rush on the dollar.

The rumors were, of course, exaggerated, but the government’s currency reserves have declined dramatically to $700 million – as opposed to $20 billion before the civil war began in 2011. And when that is all that’s left, citizens really have reason to worry that the shortage of dollars will restrict imports, particularly those of raw materials for local production. And when local production retracts and imports are subject to robust limits, retailers can exploit the situation and jack up prices.

It’s precisely these little stories, not macroeconomics, that confirm the country’s agonizing demise. The price of cigarettes, for example, has doubled recently, according to reports. Local police fear that this price hike will drive youngsters to crime, in order to maintain their “calming” habit.

One Homs resident told a Syrian reporter that three-quarters of his average monthly salary of $200 is now spent on cigarettes. “I can’t kick the habit,” he said. “Some have managed to and can save some money. I can’t, and don’t have the resources to pay these amounts.”

Sugar that costs over 60 cents a pound on the free market can be obtained for half that amount in the special stores selling “government” sugar. The problem is that the lines that stretch from these stores are so long, many citizens give up well before their turn.

Torturous existence

If life is unbearable in the Syrian capital, life in the outlying areas still under government control is downright torturous. For example, the Islamic State group controls most of the northeastern city of Deir ez-Zur. Residents in the areas where the government is in control receive running water four hours a week. They draw water from wells and have to bring the polluted water home on their motorcycles or bicycles. Some pay exorbitant prices to owners of small water tanks.

Additionally, there are about 130 health clinics in rural areas close to Damascus, but none have a specialist physician – and only three medical mobile units supply health services like vaccinations and basic treatments.

Some 450 children live in this region, about a third of them refugees, but less than half go to school. The United Nations distributed 80,000 schoolbags, but only some of them reached the hands of needy children.

A Syrian boy sits in his family's car after they received aid provided by the UN World Food Program, May 11, 2016.Credit: Amer Almohibany/AFP

Local and international aid organizations in Syria suffered a blow this week when the U.S. Agency for International Development announced a partial freeze on funds to them. The announcement came after it emerged that some of the organizations had bought basic products from Turkey at exorbitant prices from workers who received bribes from Turkish companies, and that the quality of the products didn’t meet standards.

Syrian residents retained a small glimmer of hope when a cease-fire deal initiated between the United States and Russia was announced in March. They hoped the cease-fire would lead to negotiations for a political solution. But two months later, it’s clear that the hope was unrealistic. The cease-fire collapsed in most areas nationwide. Aleppo became a cruel battlefield, rebel militias renewed the fighting against government forces and rival militias, and the political process went into deep freeze.

A group of pro-Syrian countries are to convene in Vienna this Tuesday, making preparations for the next meeting of opposition and government representatives under the aegis of the UN, to be held in Geneva on either May 23 or May 28. Russia and the United States are pressuring rebel groups to send representatives to Switzerland after they abandoned last month’s meeting, arguing there was no common ground for dialogue.

It seems the UN’s far-reaching ambition of establishing a transitional government in Syria within six months, which would govern for 18 months, will remain a meaningless document. The international community fears that if talks don’t move forward, the battles will spread, especially if Turkey carries out its threat to invade Syria in order to stop the attacks on the Turkish city of Kilis.

According to Syrian sources in Europe, the rebels are not only in conflict with the government about the talks, but also with each other. “Everyone is pulling in his own direction,” an opposition member who used to hold a senior position in the Syrian government told Haaretz, adding, “There’s enormous suspicion between the different rebel representatives.”

Regarding the demand that 40 percent of participants in the transition government come from the rebels, 40 percent from the regime and 20 percent from independents, he said it is still unclear who among the rebel groups would be part of the new government, who would represent which organization, and if there would be a consensus on the identity of regime representatives.

A Syrian representative complained about the United States lacking a clear policy. “Everything is determined in Moscow. There is no transparency and no information about the content of the talks that John Kerry held with Vladimir Putin and Sergey Lavrov,” he said. “Everyone hears what he wants and everyone denies rumors.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speak to the media after a meeting concerning Syria at the UN in New York on September 30, 2015.Credit: AFP

The representative also told Haaretz that he doesn’t understand what can be gained by going to Geneva. “The United States is busy with the presidential election campaign, and as time passes, it seems the solution – if there is one – will have to wait for the next president,” he said. “We have turned into hostages of American politics, and of the fight between Moscow and Washington,” he added.

Dr. Walid al-Bunni, an opposition member who was jailed for five years for his involvement in establishing the Political Clubs Movement when Bashar Assad became president in 2000, echoed those sentiments. Writing on the “Everyone for Syria, We Are all Partners” website of the Syrian opposition, Bunni said, “It is totally clear that all the conferences, meetings and debates were meant to pass the time with minimum losses until a new government arises in the United States.”

The problem is that the United States isn’t the only player without an endgame strategy – Russia doesn’t offer a realistic strategy, either. It’s true that the two powers cooperate in the war against ISIS and that the Syrian regime also fights against the jihadist organization. But the internal Syrian political process dissipates within this fighting.

Bunni raises four basic dilemmas requiring agreement if the sides are seriously interested in solving the crisis. First, there’s the question of whether Syria will be a united or federal country. Second, what will be the nature of the new Syrian government? Third, what will be the fate of Assad and the “mob” backing him? Finally, what should be done with the extremist organizations?

There’s no agreement over the solution to any of these dilemmas – save for the elimination of ISIS – among Russia, the United States and the Syrian regime. The sides also disagree on the list of priorities according to which it would be best to act.

Diplomats like to speak of “ripe moments” representing the chances of finding a political answer for conflict resolution. But in the coming months, it seems only summer fruits will be ripening in Syria.