Following the Assad regime’s recapture of opposition-held areas in southern Syria, pro-regime media have begun boasting the restoration of economic relations with Arab countries, namely Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. Damascus is eager to show that its success on the battlefield will persuade regional governments – including those friendly to the U.S. – to stop treating it as a pariah state.
The conversation between Damascus and Amman over resuming economic ties has been ongoing for a while, even before the regime’s campaign to retake the opposition-held areas in the south along the border with Jordan. There have been exploratory visits by Jordanian business delegations in recent months, including a delegation last week headed by the president of Jordan’s Exporters and Producers Association for Fruits and Vegetables. The main focus for the Jordanians has been reopening the Nassib border crossing to resume overland trade. In recent days, both Damascus and Amman have made statements about their readiness in principle to recommence trade through the Nassib crossing.
Concomitant with this drive, the Syrian airline operator Cham Wings Airlines announced in late July it would begin offering two weekly flights from Damascus to Amman. The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated Cham Wings in December 2016, citing the airline’s transport of militants to Syria “to fight on behalf of the Syrian regime and assisted the previously-designated Syrian Military Intelligence (SMI) in moving weapons and equipment for the Syrian regime.” (There are also longstanding suspicions that Cham Wings’s owner, Issam Shammout, is a front, possibly for Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf.)
A few days prior to this announcement, Cham Wings had publicized its new direct service from Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, to Damascus. Assad regime-related businesses have long operated in the United Arab Emirates. The Treasury Department has sanctioned several UAE-based entities for aiding the Assad regime.
In addition, a pro-regime daily reports that Emirati investor, and deputy chairman of Aafaq Islamic Finance, Abdul Jalil al-Blouki visited the Syrian capital last week and met with the governor of Damascus, who also serves as chairman of Damascus Cham Holding Company, Bishr al-Sabban. According to Al-Watan, the paper owned by Rami Makhlouf, al-Blouki expressed interest in investing in Damascus Cham Holding’s notorious Marota City development project, which plans to develop areas in Damascus depopulated from ethnic cleansing and the dispossession, through urban renewal laws, of the displaced.
Damascus Cham Holding has set up joint ventures with prominent regime cronies and financiers such as Samer Foz and Mazen Tarazi. In addition, Damascus Cham Holding has set up Rawafid Damascus, a joint venture with four companies to invest in the project, among which is Ramak Development and Humanitarian Projects, owned by Makhlouf. Now Damascus is trying to draw in Arab investors like al-Blouki, who already had set up a development and investment company in Syria in 2013.
The U.S. should make clear to partners such as Jordan and the UAE that it strongly opposes all efforts to revive the fortunes of the Assad regime. More importantly, the U.S. should communicate with absolute clarity that it will enforce sanctions not only on entities such as Cham Wings, but also on foreign investors who become entangled with the regime and its cronies.
In addition to being responsible for industrial-scale mass murder, the Assad regime is an integral part of the Iranian regional continuum stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean. Now that the Trump administration has announced its policy of applying maximum pressure on Iran, it should make clear to friends and foes alike that, as part of this policy, it will continue to treat Assad-run Syria as a pariah state.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @AcrossTheBay.
Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.