10/20/2020, 15.00
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For a Damascus priest, Trump is using Syria as an electoral card, but people continue to suffer

The White House has sent an important official to talk with Syrian authorities in order to secure the release of two Americans. For some, this is the first contact after many years, but others note that two other meetings did occur previously. For the Syrian government, the withdrawal of US troops is a precondition to talks. Fr Kassar notes that Card Zenari is one of the few people who remembers the tragedy of ordinary people who have to wait in line for hours to buy bread, and have no fuel for the winter. For them, COVID-19 is one of many problems.

Damascus (AsiaNews) – A senior US official is Syria to secure the return of two Americans who have been missing for years in the Mideast country.

For Fr Amer Kassar, a priest at the Church of Our Lady of Fatima in Damascus, US President Donald Trump is using this issue as part of his election campaign even though the Syrian government does not seem willing to negotiate "before a US withdrawal from the eastern and northern parts” of the country.

“We have read several articles on the issue recently, but this is not the first mission,” the priest explained. “Others have taken place in the past few years even if they have not been made public. I think Trump is looking for votes.”

According to press reports, quoting from the daughter of one of the two missing people, Kash Patel, deputy assistant to President Donald Trump and the top White House counterterrorism official, recently travelled to Damascus on a diplomatic mission.

Although unconfirmed, the aim of the trip was to secure the release of Majd Kamalmaz, a 62-year-old psychotherapist from of Virginia, whose fate is unknown since 2017, and freelance journalist Austin Tice, 39, who went missing in 2014 on the outskirts of the capital.

Syria and the United States do not have diplomatic relations since 2012, when the US ambassador pulled out after Syria’s civil unrest turned into a proxy war between regional and international powers.

The pro-government newspaper Al-Watan confirmed the visit, which took place in August, the third of its kind in recent years. This could give Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a chance to become an internationally recognised player again. But for the Syrian government, negotiations depend on a US withdrawal from the north-eastern part of the country, where US troops were deployed to support the Kurds.

“For Damascus, the US should stop its occupation; they [the Americans] must first leave; otherwise, negotiations will not be possible. In any event, the international community must think about the Syrian people suffering from the sanctions,” which “are aimed at the government, but in practice they affect poor people who are forced to queue for many hours to buy some bread.

“If the aim of the sanctions was to turn the people against the leadership, which has not happened in 10 years, I would say that the project has failed and must end. People are slowly dying; the situation is inhumane. European governments and the United States should act on this point. In a month, the winter will arrive and it will be terrible.”

In the recent past, the Trump administration has been putting a lot pf “political and economic" pressure on the Syrian government, imposing new sanctions.

Washington's goal with the Caesar Act is to isolate Syrian leaders and force them to take part in UN-sponsored peace talks from a situation of weakness. Sadly, the new punitive measures only affect the Syrian population.

The Apostolic Nuncio Card Mario Zenari is one of few who have witnessed the Syrian tragedy first hand, and “described our heavy cross during a Vatican meeting with diplomats.”

For the cardinal, Syria has disappeared "from the media radar" and its conflict has been covered by a "blanket of silence". The nuncio instead "spoke on our behalf at an international level," said Fr Kassar, highlighting what has long been passed over in silence.

The few times when Syria comes up, "we tend to talk about Idlib and other areas in the hands of the rebels, but not about what happens in government-held areas where 13 million people live".

In Damascus, "there is a shortage of heating oil, petrol for cars, flour for bread with endless lines of people waiting to buy. In government shops, the price is reduced to 50 pounds; elsewhere, it can reach up to 500 pounds.

Meanwhile, “The ranks of the poor are growing, and the situation is hard to live with. This is also true for the COVID-19 pandemic. but we cannot afford to lock down” the country.

For the clergyman, “if the coronavirus is the main issue in the rest of the world, here it is one of many and certainly not the most important”. It is “one more factor to cope with, because we certainly cannot afford to lock down, which would be more catastrophic that the virus.”

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