October 5, 2021 | Policy Brief

White House Quiet as U.S. Allies Rehabilitate Assad. Congress Should Not Be.

October 5, 2021 | Policy Brief

White House Quiet as U.S. Allies Rehabilitate Assad. Congress Should Not Be.

King Abdullah of Jordan spoke by phone on Sunday with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the first public contact between the two leaders since the conflict in Syria began in 2011. Their call marks the culmination of increasingly high-level contacts between the Syrian regime and its neighbors over the past two months, driven by a perception that the Biden administration tacitly supports Assad’s rehabilitation.

The Jordanian king met with President Joe Biden at the White House in July, where Abdullah reportedly pushed for a “road map to restoring Syrian sovereignty and unity.” Also in July, Arab diplomats began to press the Biden administration to let Syria participate in a multi-state deal to export gas and electricity to Lebanon, an arrangement that would require Biden to waive human rights sanctions mandated by the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019.

The following month, the United States informed the Lebanese government that it would approve the energy deal, including Syrian participation. Whereas its predecessor had enforced the Caesar Act aggressively, designating more than 100 individuals and entities in the latter half of 2020, the Biden administration has sanctioned only a handful of targets, none of which are economically significant.

A flurry of high-level meetings took place after the United States indicated in August that it would waive sanctions. Beirut sent a delegation of ministers to Syria during the first week of September, the first official Lebanese visit in a decade. The Jordanian minister of energy then hosted his Lebanese, Syrian, and Egyptian counterparts in Amman. In mid-September, the Syrian defense minister met with the Jordanian army chief for the first time since the war began. On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, the Syrian foreign minister met with his Egyptian and Jordanian counterparts. Jordan also reopened its main border crossing with Syria, while Royal Jordanian Airlines, the state carrier, announced plans to resume flights to Damascus, suspended since the beginning of the war.

The State Department sent mixed messages about these developments. When a reporter asked on September 28 about the resumption of flights by Royal Jordanian, a department spokesperson said, “When it comes to commercial travel and Jordan, we certainly welcome this announcement.” A second correspondent then pressed for clarification regarding whether “the U.S. [is] supporting a rapprochement between the two countries,” eliciting a response that there had been no change in official policy.

A follow-up email to the press flatly rejected any prospect of normalizing U.S. relations with the Assad regime, adding, “nor do we encourage others to do so.” Yet a lack of encouragement is very different from actively opposing the rapid move toward normalization now underway. In Amman, Beirut, Cairo, and other regional capitals, there is a growing conviction that the United States has abandoned its efforts to isolate Assad.

Before taking office, Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed deep regret for the American failure “to prevent a horrific loss of life” in Syria during the Obama administration. After his confirmation, Blinken committed to “putting human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy.” The president and his administration should vindicate that commitment by making clear to Washington’s allies that the United States rejects their efforts to rehabilitate Assad, whose atrocities continue unabated. There should be no waiver for Syrian participation in regional energy deals; instead, the administration should enforce the Caesar Act aggressively. If the United States wants to help Lebanon secure additional energy imports, it should find a way to do so without benefitting Assad.

Bipartisan pressure from Congress will likely be necessary to reorient the administration’s policy. The Caesar Act passed in 2019 with overwhelming bipartisan support. Congress deliberately made Caesar sanctions mandatory, rather than discretionary, to emphasize the need for vigorous enforcement. Yet the law may become a dead letter if Congress is not prepared to speak out when the president is drifting toward acceptance of Assad’s impunity.

David Adesnik is research director and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he 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.


Arab Politics Egypt Jordan Lebanon Sanctions and Illicit Finance Syria