May 6, 2021 | Policy Brief

Time for Biden to Oppose Gulf Monarchies’ Outreach to Assad

May 6, 2021 | Policy Brief

Time for Biden to Oppose Gulf Monarchies’ Outreach to Assad

Saudi intelligence chief Khalid al-Humaidan reportedly met with his Syrian counterpart in Damascus on Monday, the first meeting of its kind since the war in Syria broke out in 2011. Humaidan’s visit provides the latest indication that the Gulf monarchies are testing the waters of rapprochement with Damascus to determine if the Biden administration will tolerate such a move.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates firmly supported the armed opposition in Syria during the first years of the war, seeking to oust Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. However, following the regime’s battlefield victories in 2016 and 2017, the Gulf monarchies began to hedge their bets.

The United Arab Emirates led way in December 2018 by reopening its embassy in Damascus. Bahrain also affirmed its embassy was open in a statement that noted the kingdom’s “keenness to continue relations with the Syrian Arab Republic.” A month later, Abu Dhabi welcomed a Syrian economic delegation led by Mohammed Hamsho, an oligarch whom the Obama administration had sanctioned in the first days of the war because of his role as a front man for the interests of Maher al-Assad, Bashar’s brother.

Emiratis were among the leading investors in Syria before 2011, with $20 billion worth of deals, mainly in real estate and tourism. A top Emirati investor had visited Damascus in mid-2018, reportedly to explore participation in the Marota City project, the Assad regime’s marquee redevelopment initiative, although no deal was reached. Several months later, the European Union sanctioned all of the leading investors in Marota City for their role in financing the regime.

The greatest blow to Gulf rapprochement with Assad was the signing into law of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act in December 2019 with overwhelming bipartisan support. The Caesar Act mandates the imposition of sanctions on foreign nationals who do business with the Assad regime, an expansion of previous restrictions that applied to U.S. persons. These so-called “secondary sanctions” put in jeopardy any Gulf investors in the Syrian market.

Whereas the Trump administration launched a high-profile effort to sanction new targets each month in the latter half of 2020, the Biden administration has yet to designate any targets under Caesar or related authorities. Caesar sanctions on eligible targets are mandatory, however, so Congress likely will pressure the White House for action if it delays much longer. Resuming the sanctions campaign would also make clear to Gulf states that the United States remains fully committed to its policy of isolating Assad in concert with the European Union and other allies.

At the United Nations in March, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made an impassioned statement about the humanitarian crisis in Syria, yet the administration’s overall Syria policy remains uncertain. If the president is committed to “putting human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy,” then a clarification regarding Syria is long overdue.

Furthermore, there will be a need for constant vigilance. David Schenker, the State Department’s top official for Middle Eastern affairs under President Donald Trump, has urged the new administration to fill the open position of special envoy for Syria with an individual of sufficient stature to maintain and deepen the allied front against Assad.

Finally, if Riyadh wants to repair the extensive damage that human rights violations have done to its reputation on the Hill, it should not embrace the bloodiest regime in the region.

David Adesnik is research director and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from David and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow David on Twitter @adesnik. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Gulf States Syria