May 8, 2023 | Flash Brief

Unrepentant, Unreformed Syrian Regime Returns to Arab League

May 8, 2023 | Flash Brief

Unrepentant, Unreformed Syrian Regime Returns to Arab League

Latest Developments

Twelve years after it suspended Syria for the violent suppression and torture of peaceful protesters, the League of Arab States welcomed Syria back to the fold on May 7, just weeks ahead of the League’s annual summit. To facilitate its readmission, the regime of Bashar al-Assad reportedly agreed to let a handful of refugees return from Jordan and to cooperate with its neighbors to prevent the exportation of illegal drugs from Syria. However, the regime itself operates and profits from the country’s narcotrafficking networks, so the latter commitment is highly suspect.

A U.S. government spokesperson said, “We do not believe Syria merits readmission into the Arab League at this time.” Yet the Biden administration has become increasingly open in its encouragement of Arab governments to re-engage with Damascus. Ambassador Barbara Leaf, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, has explained, “We advise our friends and partners in the region that they should get something in return for this engagement with Assad.”

Expert Analysis

“If the administration wants to get serious about opposing normalization with Assad, it should start using the many authorities it has — especially Caesar Act sanctions — to hold the Syrian regime accountable. Congress passed the Caesar Act with overwhelming bipartisan support and should step up its oversight efforts to ensure the administration holds Assad accountable. Otherwise, the U.S. will open the door wider to Assad’s rehabilitation without any semblance of reform.” — Toby Dershowitz, FDD Senior Vice President for Government Relations and Strategy

“With a tacit green light from the Biden administration, the Arab League has surrendered on the question of holding Assad accountable for his war crimes, which have cost the lives of half a million Syrians. The regime’s torture and violence continue unabated.” — David Adesnik, FDD Senior Fellow and Director of Research

Saudi Pivot Promotes Arab Re-Engagement With Assad

The Saudi promotion of re-engagement with Assad accelerated sharply after China brokered a reconciliation agreement between Riyadh and Tehran. With his country in ruins, Assad remains fully dependent on both military and economic support from Iran as well as Russia. After putting aside differences with the clerical regime in Iran, the Saudis proceeded to repair their relationship with Tehran’s principal Arab client.

Prior to the Saudi pivot, several Arab governments — in particular the United Arab Emirates — promoted normalization with Assad, but the region as a whole was hesitant to embrace the Syrian regime openly. In early April, the Saudis announced their intention to invite Assad to this month’s Arab League summit in Riyadh. Despite scattered signs of hesitation from a handful of capitals, the Saudi push has now prevailed.

While Encouraging Normalization, Washington Claims to Oppose It

For almost two years, the Biden administration has distracted attention from its encouragement of normalization by insisting that the United States itself will not restore its own ties with Syria unless Assad accepts a political resolution to the country’s civil war. Yet the relevant question has never been whether Washington would re-open its embassy in Damascus. Rather, it was whether the Biden administration would cement Assad’s status as a regional pariah by pressuring its Arab partners to keep their distance from Damascus — which it has not done.

The Biden Administration Should Not Support Assad’s Rehabilitation,” by David Adesnik

Assad Will Return to Arab League Summit Courtesy of Saudi Invite,” FDD Flash Brief

Syria’s Challenge to Tony Blinken’s Conscience,” by David Adesnik


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