April 26, 2023 | The Washington Post

Biden is quietly encouraging Assad’s rehabilitation. He should reverse course.

April 26, 2023 | The Washington Post

Biden is quietly encouraging Assad’s rehabilitation. He should reverse course.

In the first weeks of Joe Biden’s presidency, Secretary of State Antony Blinken committed to “putting human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy.” Before taking office, Blinken expressed deep regret for the way the United States “failed to prevent a horrific loss of life” in Syria during his tenure as the No. 2 official at the State Department under Barack Obama.

Yet now that Blinken holds the top diplomatic position, U.S. policy toward Syria is the opposite of what one might expect. Rather than isolating Bashar al-Assad and ensuring that his regime remains a pariah, the administration has quietly encouraged Assad’s diplomatic rehabilitation.

This policy runs contrary to the spirit of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which Congress passed in late 2019 with strong bipartisan support as part of its annual defense authorization bill. This law sought to cement Assad’s isolation by creating a statutory requirement that the president impose sanctions on all who do business with the Assad regime.

During its first months in office, the Biden administration pledged faithful implementation of the act. Yet half a year passed before it imposed sanctions on any Assad regime entities, whereas the Trump administration, despite its erratic policy toward Syria, had announced new targets every month after the law went into effect.

Before Western audiences, the Biden administration speaks as if it were still committed to isolating Assad. Last month, to mark the anniversary of the 2011 uprising against the Assad dictatorship, the White House joined with the governments of the United Kingdom, France and Germany to declare, “We are not normalizing relations with the Assad regime [and] we will not normalize until there is authentic and enduring progress towards a political solution” to the Syrian civil war.

Yet as various Arab states have kicked off efforts to normalize relations with the Assad regime, the Biden administration has signaled its readiness to accept the outcome. Instead of strongly protesting these moves, last month Barbara Leaf, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, said in an interview: “We advise our friends and partners in the region that they should get something in return for this engagement with Assad.”

The administration says it expects Assad to make concessions on human rights in exchange for normalization. Leaf said those who engage Assad should “press him” to consider “the security of his own people.” Specifically, press him to “create the conditions to permit IDPs [internally displaced persons] and refugees to return home in safety and security.” She repeated similar talking points to the regional news outlet Al-Monitor and again in a State Department digital briefing.

The idea that such requests would bear fruit is fanciful. The regimes set to restore ties with Assad have abysmal human rights records of their own, including EgyptSaudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They will not advocate for the Syrian people.

The administration has not offered any clear rationale for supporting engagement. The primary cause seems to be fatigue. With unstinting support from Russia and Iran, Assad has demonstrated his staying power. The administration does not appear to want to invest the diplomatic capital necessary to keep him isolated.

Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have a very different view of the situation. Almost a year to the day after Biden took office, four top lawmakers sent him a letter restating their opposition to the administration’s “tacit approval of formal diplomatic engagement with the Syrian regime.” Two of the four were the Democratic chairs of the House and Senate foreign affairs committees. The other two were the Republican ranking members of those committees. At a time of intense polarization in Congress, this position commands bipartisan support.

On moral grounds, the case for isolating Assad is unassailable. But it is also in the United States’ narrow self-interest. Increasingly, the Syrian regime resembles a narco-trafficking cartel, flooding the region with an amphetamine-like drug known as captagon. Damascus also remains an integral part of the Iranian network that transfers advanced weapons and hundreds of millions of dollars to Hamas and Hezbollah — the U.S.-designated terrorist organizations that brought the region to the brink of war earlier this month with rocket attacks on Israel.

Assad’s rehabilitation has only come this far because the administration gave his neighbors the green light. A reversal could stop the process in its tracks.

David Adesnik is a senior fellow and director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @adesnik. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.