June 17, 2022 | Policy Brief

Across Party Lines, Senators Tell Biden to Get Tough on Assad

June 17, 2022 | Policy Brief

Across Party Lines, Senators Tell Biden to Get Tough on Assad

At a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, senators from across the political spectrum pressed the Biden administration to isolate Syria’s criminal regime and fully enforce the human rights sanctions Congress has mandated. The committee members’ dissatisfaction reinforced bipartisan warnings from senior lawmakers that they firmly oppose U.S. toleration of regional efforts to rehabilitate the Damascus dictatorship.

Wednesday’s hearing represented the first time during President Joe Biden’s tenure that a senior official appeared before the committee to testify about Syria. Ambassador Barbara Leaf, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, won Senate confirmation only last month but worked on the same portfolio for the National Security Council since January 2021.

During its first months in office, the Biden administration warned Syria’s neighbors that the United States would firmly oppose any efforts to normalize relations with the Bashar al-Assad regime. In particular, Washington would enforce sanctions under the human rights law known as the Caesar Act.

However, last August, the Biden administration announced its support for the regime’s inclusion in a pair of regional energy deals that would earn tens of millions of dollars for Damascus. This signal from Washington led to a rapid escalation of Arab engagement with Assad at the ministerial and even head-of-state levels. As a Washington Post headline put it, “Biden is tacitly endorsing Assad’s normalization.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has pushed back against this view of Biden’s policy, pledging last year, “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.” In her prepared testimony and opening remarks last week, Leaf reiterated Blinken’s position. Yet this formulation commits the administration only to withhold support for normalization, not to oppose it actively.

In his own opening remarks, committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said Washington needs “a comprehensive strategy — one that enforces fully the robust set of U.S. sanctions as a means to build leverage that will sharpen Assad’s choices and maintain his political isolation.”

Ranking Member Jim Risch (R-ID) expressed agreement with the chairman, adding, “I fear this administration is tacitly approving outreach to the regime. Caesar sanctions enforcement has been lacking, and the administration’s support for energy deals through Syria to Lebanon violates the Caesar Act.” There is merit to Risch’s claim of soft enforcement. In the past 18 months, the Biden administration has designated 18 Assad regime targets, whereas the previous administration imposed sanctions on 113 targets during the first six months after the Caesar law went into effect in 2020.

Responding to committee members’ concerns, Leaf said she would “sharpen the pressure on Assad” and use the resulting leverage to deepen the regime’s isolation. Congress should hold the administration to that pledge, ensuring this verbal commitment translates into action.

First, the State Department will need to rebuild the team responsible for targeting Caesar Act violators. The original team worked under the special representative for Syria engagement, an independent office that the Biden administration emptied and folded into the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

Second, the administration should suspend its advocacy of regional energy deals in which Damascus remains a participant. There is no way to reconcile these agreements with the Caesar Act.

Third, the administration needs to craft an interagency strategy to disrupt Syrian narco-trafficking, which has likely become the regime’s most important source of income. There is also an urgent need to stop Assad’s wholesale diversion of international humanitarian aid. The United States should also revive its apparently dormant effort to disrupt Iran’s illicit shipment of crude oil to Syria, which violates U.S. sanctions on both countries.

Taken together, these measures will signal clearly to Syria’s neighbors that Washington is committed to holding Assad accountable in practice, not just in theory.

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 focused on national security and foreign policy.


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