March 21, 2022 | Policy Brief

Assad Visits the UAE, Showing Need for Tougher Enforcement of U.S. Sanctions

March 21, 2022 | Policy Brief

Assad Visits the UAE, Showing Need for Tougher Enforcement of U.S. Sanctions

Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad visited the United Arab Emirates on Friday, the first time another Arab government has welcomed Assad since the beginning of the war in Syria in 2011. The State Department said it was “profoundly disappointed” by Abu Dhabi’s “apparent attempt to legitimize Bashar al-Assad,” yet the Biden administration has sent consistent signals to Arab allies indicating its tacit approval of normalization with Damascus.

During the first months of its tenure, the Biden administration opposed efforts to engage with the Assad regime, warning that the United States would fully enforce sanctions mandated by the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. Last August, however, the White House publicly supported Syria’s inclusion in a four-way energy deal with Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon that directly violates the Caesar Act’s proscription of material support for the Assad regime.

Despite that pivot, the administration insists its policy has not changed. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other senior U.S. officials emphasize that Washington will neither lift sanctions nor pursue normalization with Damascus. Yet Blinken and others are careful not to say that the United States will actively oppose or interfere with such efforts.

In January, senior lawmakers from both parties sent a letter to the president stating their opposition to any “tacit approval of formal diplomatic engagement with the Syrian regime” by Washington’s Arab allies. The authors asserted there should be consequences for such engagement and called on Biden “to utilize the robust, mandatory deterrence mechanisms” in the Caesar Act “to maintain the Assad regime’s isolation.” The State Department’s tepid declaration of disappointment with the Emirates for hosting Assad shows the administration has not heeded lawmakers’ advice.

Under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi, the Emirates have broadly aligned themselves with the United States on key strategic issues, while perennially testing Washington’s readiness to enforce its sanctions on Syria and Iran. In late 2018, the United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus. Weeks later, the Emiratis welcomed a Syrian delegation led by an Assad regime financier whom the U.S. Treasury Department had sanctioned. The Emirates also continued to import hundreds of millions of dollars of Iranian petrochemicals, even after the Trump administration re-imposed sanctions on the Iranian petrochemical sector in November 2018.

The costs of pushing further became clear when Congress passed the Caesar Act in December 2019 with overwhelming bipartisan support. In March 2020, Treasury added five UAE-based firms to its Iran sanctions blacklist.

If the Biden administration wanted to do more than express its disappointment, it could renew the formidable sanctions-enforcement efforts that lapsed when President Joe Biden took office. After the Caesar Act took effect in June 2020, the previous administration designated new sanctions targets each month. During its 12 months in office, by contrast, the Biden administration has issued only two sets of Syria-related sanctions, neither of which affected economically significant targets.

Biden’s commitment to enforcing the Caesar Act and to isolating Assad will remain uncertain at best so long as the administration promotes the four-way energy deal between Damascus, Beirut, Amman, and Cairo. The deal necessitates cabinet-level engagement between the participants, while ensuring Assad receives ample compensation for allowing Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity to cross through Syria en route to Lebanon.

This week, on the 11th anniversary of the mass demonstrations to which Assad responded with lethal force, the State Department reiterated its commitment to “achieve justice and accountability for the Syrian people.” Yet those words will ring hollow so long as the administration implicitly supports its Arab allies’ engagement with Assad. If the United States does not vigorously oppose normalization with an inveterate war criminal like Assad, Vladimir Putin may draw the lesson that Russian atrocities in Ukraine will not prevent his eventual rehabilitation.

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.


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