October 14, 2021 | Policy Brief

Blinken Affirms Softening of U.S. Policy Toward Assad Regime

October 14, 2021 | Policy Brief

Blinken Affirms Softening of U.S. Policy Toward Assad Regime

Secretary of State Antony Blinken yesterday became the first Cabinet-level official to confirm that the United States will no longer stand in the way of Arab states pursuing the diplomatic rehabilitation of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. This reversal marks an important gain for Assad and for his sponsors in Moscow and Tehran, who have struggled to restore the regime’s legitimacy despite overcoming all military threats to Assad’s hold on power.

Blinken sought to leave an impression of continuity in U.S. policy by insisting Washington will not encourage the Assad regime’s return from isolation. “What we have not done and what we do not intend to do is to express any support for efforts to normalize relations or rehabilitate Mr. Assad,” the secretary stated. This framing obscures the critical point that the United States had, until this summer, actively — and effectively — sought to deter Assad’s rehabilitation by employing a combination of diplomatic pressure and sanctions.

The first clear sign of a change in U.S. policy was the Biden administration’s mid-August decision to approve Syrian participation in a four-country energy deal also involving Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. Crucially, the U.S. ambassador in Beirut provided explicit assurances that the White House would not let U.S. sanctions derail the project. According to The Washington Post, the Biden administration even advised the deal’s participants on how to structure their agreement to avoid such consequences.

Arab governments quickly grasped that they now had a green light to engage with Assad. After a decade of avoiding high-level contacts, Syria’s neighbors began to arrange ministerial-level meetings. King Abdullah of Jordan, who is spearheading the effort, even accepted a personal phone call from Assad.

In the years before President Joe Biden took office, the Arab Gulf monarchies periodically sought to test Washington’s commitment to isolating Assad. Encountering resistance, they mostly retreated. Most importantly, overwhelming bipartisan majorities in Congress passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act in 2019, which mandated sanctions on foreign nationals who do business with the Assad regime. These so-called “secondary sanctions” put in jeopardy any Gulf investors in the Syrian market.

While the prior administration implemented sanctions aggressively, designating 113 targets between June and December of last year, the Biden administration has designated just a handful of targets with no economic significance. Nonetheless, until mid-summer, the administration insisted on its commitment to the Caesar Act. In late June, the State Department’s assistant secretary for Middle Eastern affairs specifically warned those planning to engage the Assad regime that “governments and businesses need to be careful that their proposed or envisioned transactions don’t expose them to potential sanctions from the United States under [the Caesar] act.”

The reversal of U.S. policy toward Syria is especially striking in light of Blinken’s pledge, shortly after taking office, that the Biden administration would “put human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy.” Moreover, as the stepson of an Auschwitz survivor, Blinken has frequently asserted the importance of learning from past atrocities to prevent their recurrence. Last week, on the 80th anniversary of the Nazi massacre at Babyn Yar, he said, “[We must] recommit ourselves to ensuring that their full history is told, and pledge to act, every day, so that history is not repeated.”

The reversal of U.S. policy — with no apparent concessions from Assad or from his patrons in Moscow and Tehran — also sacrifices an important source of leverage that could facilitate the pursuit of other U.S. objectives, such as expanding humanitarian access. In July, the administration persuaded Russia not to veto a UN Security Council resolution that reauthorized a major component of the UN aid program for Syria, yet Moscow is likely to threaten another veto next July, so diplomatic leverage remains indispensable.

The proper response to Assad’s unceasing atrocities and destabilization of the Levant is a policy of relentless pressure.

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.


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