July 28, 2022 | Policy Brief

Algeria Leads Campaign to Rehabilitate Assad Regime

July 28, 2022 | Policy Brief

Algeria Leads Campaign to Rehabilitate Assad Regime

While visiting Damascus to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra called on Monday for Syria’s return to the Arab League. Lamamra’s trip to Damascus is part and parcel of a regional trend toward higher-level engagement with the Assad regime that accelerated after the Biden administration advocated Syria’s inclusion in regional energy agreements.

This coming November, Algeria will host the next summit of the Arab League, which expelled and imposed sanctions on Syria in 2011 amid the regime’s bloody suppression of mass protests. Syrian participation in the summit depends on a consensus of member states. A senior League official, Hossam Zaki, said support for Syria’s return is growing. While its reinstatement “is not a distant matter, it is not a close matter either,” Zaki asserted.

Last month, Bahrain returned its ambassador to Syria after a nearly 11-year absence. In March, the United Arab Emirates hosted Assad himself, becoming the first country other than Russia and Iran to welcome the Syrian leader, who denies he has used chemical weapons or perpetrated other atrocities.

Unlike most Arab states, Algiers has maintained diplomatic relations with Damascus throughout the war in Syria. The Emirates initially supported opposition forces but reopened its Damascus embassy in December 2018, just days after President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. forces from northeast Syria. (Trump reversed his order several weeks later.) Nevertheless, Arab outreach to Damascus remained relatively muted, especially after a bipartisan majority in Congress passed a tough new sanctions law targeting the Assad regime, the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act.

The Biden administration initially said it recognized the Caesar Act as the law of the land and would enforce it accordingly. However, the Biden team pivoted away from that position last August. That month, the administration announced its support for including Damascus in a pair of regional energy deals that will net the regime an estimated $40 million to $50 million. (Assad and his counterparts have approved the deals but are waiting on the World Bank to fund the initiative.)

Arab capitals understood the signal from Washington and rushed to initiate ministerial-level meetings with Damascus, which they had avoided since 2011. King Abdullah II of Jordan even accepted a personal phone call from the Syrian leader despite previously calling on him to step down.

The Biden administration insists its policy toward Syria has not changed, yet senior lawmakers from both parties warned the president in a January letter 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.” Just one month later, the atrocities that accompanied the Russian invasion of Ukraine affirmed the risks of impunity.

The Biden administration should signal to Algeria and other Arab states that it firmly opposes normalization with Assad. The White House should then set an example by terminating its support for Syria’s inclusion in the regional energy agreements.

The departments of State and the Treasury should also clarify that the United States will punish Algeria-based violators of the Caesar Act. A week before Algiers sent its foreign minister to Damascus, the Assad regime established a Syrian-Algerian Business Council chaired by Khaled al-Zubaidi, one of the first individuals sanctioned pursuant to the Caesar Act. If the Biden administration remains committed to “putting human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy,” as Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it in February 2021, it should end its tacit support for Assad’s 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 focused on national security and foreign policy.


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