January 20, 2022 | Policy Brief

Congress Delivers Bipartisan Warning to Biden on Syria Policy

January 20, 2022 | Policy Brief

Congress Delivers Bipartisan Warning to Biden on Syria Policy

The chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate committees on foreign relations sent a letter last week to President Joe Biden warning him that “[t]acit approval of formal diplomatic engagement with the Syrian regime sets a dangerous precedent for authoritarians who seek to commit similar crimes against humanity.” The White House signaled last summer that it would not stand in the way of Syria’s diplomatic rehabilitation in the Arab world, yet congressional leaders rarely raised any public concern about Biden’s policy before this letter.

In late 2019, bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, a sanctions law designed to deepen the isolation of the Bashar al-Assad regime, with an emphasis on deterring support for Assad from entities outside Syria. During its final year in office, the Trump administration enforced the Caesar Act vigorously, eliciting broad support on Capitol Hill.

Early in its tenure, the Biden administration pledged to “put human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy.” On multiple occasions, the administration warned Arab governments that the Caesar Act was the law of the land, so enforcement would be firm. Yet in August 2021, the administration approved of Syrian participation in a regional energy deal likely to generate substantial revenue, in cash or in kind, for the Assad regime. This signal from Washington led Syria’s neighbors to initiate high-level engagements with Damascus in September.

In response to media coverage of its reversal, the administration insisted that its policy toward Syria had not changed, since Washington itself would neither lift sanctions nor pursue normalization with Assad. Yet Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other senior officials have carefully avoided saying that they would take any action to stop other countries from rehabilitating the Assad regime.

Last October, the leaders of the bipartisan Friends of Syria Caucus in the House of Representatives publicly condemned normalization with Assad, while some senior Republicans expressed disappointment with the policies of U.S. partners in the Arab League. These instances aside, congressional opposition was minimal until last week’s letter from the chairmen and ranking members.

In their letter to Biden, Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and James Risch (R-ID) and Representatives Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Michael McCaul (R-TX) advise the president, “Your administration should consider consequences for any nation that seeks to rehabilitate the Assad regime.” This is good advice. The main advocates of engagement have been U.S. partners, principally Jordan, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. Washington exercises substantial influence in their capitals, so Amman, Cairo, and Abu Dhabi would likely heed an American warning. While the United Arab Emirates has pushed for normalization for several years, neither Cairo nor Amman made any significant moves until the Biden administration gave them a subtle green light.

Despite challenging the White House, the bipartisan letter did not mention the regional energy deal in which Syria is participating thanks to the Biden administration’s approval. Negotiations surrounding the energy deal are the primary vehicle for Assad’s reintegration into Arab diplomacy, so normalization will likely continue for as long as Washington approves of Syrian participation. If the White House does not heed this warning from the Hill, the letter’s authors should assert that they interpret the deal as a clear violation of the Caesar Act. This may be sufficient to deter participation by Egypt, whose petroleum minister expressed concerns about his government’s exposure to sanctions. Without Cairo’s participation, the deal’s natural gas component would no longer be viable.

Finally, Congress should consider revising the Caesar Act to expand sanctions against the Assad regime, its financiers, and its other supporters while limiting the discretion the executive branch now enjoys in the law’s implementation. If the White House refuses to put human rights at the center of U.S. policy toward Syria, then Congress should.

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.


Sanctions and Illicit Finance Syria