December 13, 2021 | Policy Brief

Biden Administration Limits Itself to Symbolic Sanctions on Syria

December 13, 2021 | Policy Brief

Biden Administration Limits Itself to Symbolic Sanctions on Syria

The Treasury Department imposed sanctions on five Syrian military officers last week, including commanders with direct responsibility for the use of chemical weapons against civilians. While these five officers fully deserve the blacklisting, the Biden administration has avoided targeting the financiers who facilitate the Damascus regime’s atrocities.

According to Treasury, Major General Tawfiq Muhammad Khadour commanded Syrian air force units that employed both chlorine bombs and conventional munitions against civilian targets. Major General Muhammad Youssef al-Hasouri, himself a pilot, “personally carried out numerous airstrikes killing Syrian civilians,” including the April 2017 sarin attack that killed at least killed 87 people. In addition to taking measures against Khadour and Hasouri, Treasury announced sanctions on three military intelligence officers responsible for torture and extrajudicial killings.

In 2019, bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which seeks to intensify economic pressure on the regime of Bashar al-Assad to stop human rights violations and incentivize a negotiated end to the war in Syria. In the six months after the law went into effect in June 2020, the U.S. government added 113 entities and individuals to its sanctions list, including financiers such as Khodr Ali Taher and Yasser Ibrahim as well as numerous officers responsible for grave human rights violations.

After taking office, the Biden administration waited six months before blacklisting any additional Assad regime figures. When the administration finally acted in July 2021, its sanctions targeted five security officials, eight prisons, and a pro-regime militia — all responsible for atrocities, but none of them significant financial supporters of the regime. The absence of economically significant targets from the latest round of sanctions confirms the administration is deliberately avoiding the escalation of pressure on Assad.

On the contrary, the administration has enabled the Assad regime’s diplomatic and economic re-engagement with Arab governments that previously shunned Damascus. In August, the State Department signaled approval of a regional energy deal that would allow Lebanon to import natural gas and electric power via Syria. Within weeks, Jordan, Lebanon, and other countries resumed the high-level diplomatic contacts with Damascus that they had suspended during the first years of the war in Syria.

The Biden administration initially sought to avoid media coverage of its new policy, which is at odds with Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s commitment to “put human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy.” In response to questions about this apparent shift, Blinken sought to create an impression of continuity by emphasizing that Washington itself would not engage with Assad. Yet he conceded that the administration would no longer stand in the way of others doing so.

Assad has not made any apparent concessions on human rights, chemical weapons, or other issues in response to Washington’s embrace of a less confrontational policy. Nor should one expect the regime to change its behavior when the Biden administration opts for toleration despite ongoing atrocities and Assad’s aggressive move into narco-trafficking.

So far, despite overwhelming votes in favor of the Caesar Act, few in Congress have called on the administration to obey the spirit and the letter of the law, as the administration promised to do on multiple occasions. The House and Senate should promptly hold hearings on Syria, forcing the White House to defend a policy that advances neither America’s values nor its interests.

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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