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Biden’s Inaction on Syria Risks Normalizing Assad—and His Crimes

The world is gradually accepting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad back into the fold.

By , a senior fellow and director of the Syria and Counterterrorism and Extremism programs at the Middle East Institute.
A smiling Bashar al-Assad faces a crowd of journalists with microphones.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accompanied by his wife, Asma, speaks to the press after casting his vote at a polling station in Douma, Syria, on May 26. Louai Beshara/AFP via Getty Images

From gassing sleeping towns and bombing hospitals, schools, and bakeries to employing yearslong starvation sieges and using crematoriums to conceal the mass murder of prison populations, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has spared nothing in its brutal pursuit of survival over the past decade.

When men, women, and children took to the streets in the spring of 2011 to call for political reform—many holding roses in the air to represent peace—Assad labeled them “germs.” Ten years later, at least half a million Syrians are dead, 100,000 more individuals have disappeared, and more than half the population remains displaced. More prosecutable evidence of war crimes has amassed against Assad’s regime than against the Nazis at Nuremberg.

Yet despite the enormity of his regime’s crimes, Assad sits more comfortably in Damascus today than at any time since 2011. Fatigued and often disinterested, the international community is pursuing no discernible action to resolve Syria’s ongoing crisis, let alone any sort of justice or accountability. Indeed, the world seems to be gradually accepting Assad back into the global community—and thereby helping to normalize the atrocities his regime has committed. Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad acknowledged just that on Oct. 7, when he claimed the “achievements” of Syria’s “war on terrorism” were precisely why “international political atmospheres” had recently changed toward Syria.

From gassing sleeping towns and bombing hospitals, schools, and bakeries to employing yearslong starvation sieges and using crematoriums to conceal the mass murder of prison populations, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has spared nothing in its brutal pursuit of survival over the past decade.

When men, women, and children took to the streets in the spring of 2011 to call for political reform—many holding roses in the air to represent peace—Assad labeled them “germs.” Ten years later, at least half a million Syrians are dead, 100,000 more individuals have disappeared, and more than half the population remains displaced. More prosecutable evidence of war crimes has amassed against Assad’s regime than against the Nazis at Nuremberg.

Yet despite the enormity of his regime’s crimes, Assad sits more comfortably in Damascus today than at any time since 2011. Fatigued and often disinterested, the international community is pursuing no discernible action to resolve Syria’s ongoing crisis, let alone any sort of justice or accountability. Indeed, the world seems to be gradually accepting Assad back into the global community—and thereby helping to normalize the atrocities his regime has committed. Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad acknowledged just that on Oct. 7, when he claimed the “achievements” of Syria’s “war on terrorism” were precisely why “international political atmospheres” had recently changed toward Syria.

In an extraordinary move, for instance, Interpol re-added Syria into its networks in early October, providing Assad’s regime with the ability to issue international arrest warrants (so-called red notices) for the first time since 2011, placing hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees abroad in potential danger. That a regime currently responsible for a multibillion-dollar transnational narcotics trade would be afforded such rights after a decade of war crimes is a staggering indictment of the moral character of that body.

So too was the World Health Organization’s decision in May to award Syria a seat on its executive board despite the regime’s extensive and documented track record of bombing hospitals, imposing deadly sieges, restricting aid delivery, and more.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has also adopted a largely hands-off approach to Syria. And although the Biden administration itself may not be welcoming Assad back into the fold with open arms, it has clearly left open the door for others to do so—shattering international norms and rewarding the 21st century’s most notorious war criminal with a rebirth. One official, speaking anonymously, even admitted the Biden administration will not act to prevent or reverse U.S. allies reengaging with and normalizing Assad’s regime.

Although nobody expected the Biden administration to place Syria at or near the top of its foreign-policy agenda, its dual emphasis on human rights and the need for “relentless diplomacy” instead of endless war had raised hopes that Syria might offer an opportunity for diplomatic action.

For now, the only discernible components of the Biden administration’s Syria policy are ensuring humanitarian access and countering the Islamic State. These are unquestionably important areas for action, and U.S. diplomacy was instrumental in securing continued aid access into northwestern Syria in July. But providing aid and fighting terrorism are merely Band-Aids that treat the symptoms of Syria’s crisis while allowing the root causes—chiefly Assad’s brutal rule—to fester.

Despite considerable pressure from Congress and other interested groups, the administration has not appointed a dedicated and senior envoy for Syria, instead choosing in September to do away with the role altogether and fold it into the broader regional responsibilities of new deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs Ethan Goldrich.

On paper, the United States remains committed to a political settlement in line with the 2015 United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for a nationwide cease-fire and for Syrian-led, U.N.-facilitated negotiations toward a political settlement that result in “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance,” the drafting of a new constitution, and the convening of free and fair U.N.-supervised national elections. But absent of a serious U.S. diplomatic push, it is simply not going to happen.

Diplomacy continues at the United Nations, but it is an open secret that the U.N. special envoy for Syria, celebrated Norwegian diplomat Geir Pedersen, is virtually powerless in his mission without the United States assuming an assertive role. Without that, Pedersen’s indefatigable efforts to achieve even a semblance of progress by the Syrian Constitutional Committee—set up by the United Nations to facilitate a “Syrian-owned” process of negotiating a new national constitution—is the most that can be expected, and that does not even represent a Band-Aid.

The United States’ allies have interpreted this lack of a discernible and holistic U.S. approach in different ways. In Europe, it has catalyzed a similar distancing from Syria policy, driven partly by fatigue but also a resignation that without a consequential U.S. role, European governments have little interest in pushing for the otherwise unattainable. Several months ago, European officials were eagerly awaiting the results of the Biden administration’s much vaunted Syria policy review, but today, the United States’ allies in Europe view the purportedly still ongoing review with mocking, if exasperated, laughs.

For governments in the Middle East, the response has been different. When the Biden administration came into office in January, the region was largely supportive of Resolution 2254, the need for a political settlement, and the U.S-stated demand for a behavioral change on the part of Syria’s regime (as opposed to regime change) as a condition for diplomatic reengagement or economic reconstruction. The United Arab Emirates had already begun to gradually increase its engagement with Syria’s regime by this time, but it had come to little more than rhetoric.

But when Jordanian King Abdullah II visited Washington in July amid a deteriorating U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, he came with a new idea for how to deal with Syria: If you really want to see behavioral change from Assad’s regime, Abdullah argued, then we must define what that means and begin a “step-for-step” process of tests and confidence-building measures with the regime to ascertain its willingness to act constructively. He proposed creating a task force of like-minded states, bringing together regional governments with Europe and the United States, to determine the most effective approach. By all accounts, the king was met with a standard reiteration of U.S. support for Resolution 2254 but no explicit rejection of a regional, phased reengagement with Damascus.

In the weeks since, the resulting changes have been dramatic. A multilateral deal has been finalized to revive and expand the Arab Gas Pipeline project (which had been briefly operational from 2008 to 2010) to pipe Egyptian natural gas to Lebanon via Jordanian and Syrian territory. According to well-placed reporting, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut played a key role in creating space for the negotiations to proceed, encouraging the parties to proceed and indicating a de facto waiver of U.S. sanctions on the Assad regime under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which could otherwise have prohibited the deal.

Since the gas deal became public, Jordan has played host to a steady stream of Syrian government ministers—of energy, transport, water resources, agriculture and agrarian reform, economy and trade, industry, and most significantly, internationally sanctioned Defense Minister Ali Ayoub. On Oct. 3, Abdullah even spoke by phone with Assad himself and, according to the Jordanian royal court, talked about the relationship between their “brotherly countries and ways to enhance cooperation.”

Amid Jordan’s diplomatic push, Mekdad (who is currently sanctioned by the United Kingdom and European Union) attended the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September and was visited by an unprecedented seven Middle Eastern minister-level delegations. Meanwhile, Algeria reiterated its determination to fold Syria back into the Arab League in time for the hosting of the next Arab Summit in Algeria later in 2021.

The United Arab Emirates also renewed its economics-focused engagement with Damascus: It invited Syria to participate in the Dubai expo in October and granted ministerial meetings with Syria’s minister of economy and trade, in which prospects for economic cooperation and investment were discussed and UAE officials declared their desire to see Syria return to its pre-2011 status. Plans were also made to revive the Syrian-UAE Council of Businessmen. The UAE even publicly congratulated Syria’s “leadership and people” on Oct. 5 for the country’s role in the “October Liberation War”—also known as the 1973 Arab-Israeli War or the Yom Kippur War, which could in no way have been described as a success for the Arab side.

While these moves are being driven specifically by regional dynamics and decisions, the Biden administration appears to be untroubled by them, despite their deleterious effect on the United States’ stated support for the world’s only guiding mandate for Syria policy: Resolution 2254. Although the administration insists it remains loyal to Resolution 2254 and its many associated principles and the State Department continues to declare the United States “will not normalize or upgrade our diplomatic relations with the Assad regime,” Washington’s willingness to oppose or block its regional allies’ from doing so is clearly waning.

Take just one example: the decision to essentially waive Caesar Act sanctions allowing the Arab Gas Pipeline deal to go through. The Caesar Act—formally the Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act of 2019—was named after the Syrian military police photographer identified only by the code name “Caesar” who, when he defected in 2013, smuggled out more than 53,000 photographs that showed, among other horrors, images of prisoners who had been brutally starved and tortured to death in Syrian regime prisons.

The legislation was intended to empower the goal of accountability, to protect civilians but also prevent external investment in regime-held Syria and, thus, Assad’s normalization. But after 10 months, it has yet to be utilized by the Biden administration despite its self-proclaimed human rights-guided foreign-policy agenda. Worse still, the Caesar Act may be waived to allow for developments that help facilitate Assad’s normalization.

The Biden administration’s largely hands-off strategy or, perhaps more bluntly, it’s two-faced approach (disliking but refusing to prevent and, at times, facilitating the normalizing of Assad) to Syria appears to be part of a wider philosophy of what I call “delegated stabilization” toward the Middle East, whereby local states are given tacit permission to attempt to resolve acute regional issues themselves with minimal U.S. involvement. Although the outcomes may often be unpalatable, this approach in theory enables the Biden administration to focus on issues it believes to be of greater importance, such as competition with China.

However, theory does not always translate well into reality. Papering over Syria’s crisis’s deep-rooted causes and allowing U.S. allies in the region to prioritize their own immediate self-perceived interests vis-à-vis Syria will not lead to stability. On its current trajectory and with Assad at the helm of a broken, deeply corrupt state and shattered economy, Syria is destined for nothing but misery. The future looks bright only for Assad’s regime, criminal networks, and terrorist organizations.

Worse still, regional reengagement with Assad’s regime poses a threatening new reality for the millions of Syrians living as refugees in neighboring countries. Reports of Jordanian intelligence arresting Syrian journalists in Amman, Jordan, and threatening to deport them for critical reporting of Syria’s regime is a deeply concerning sign of what the future may hold.

For now, the Biden administration has acted admirably in its two priority areas of Syria policy: humanitarian aid access and countering the Islamic State. However, sustainability of both is increasingly in question so long as a broader, more holistic strategy remains absent. With regional states reengaging with Assad’s regime at an unprecedented rate, the likelihood of Russia being willing to permit cross-border access into northern Syria is sure to decline.

And although the U.S. government has been very clear it has no intention of withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria’s northeast, the increasingly dire economy of the Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) “autonomous administration” places the sustainability of troop deployment in question too. According to well-placed sources I’ve spoken to, the autonomous administration’s bloated bureaucracy and reliance on the massively devalued Syrian pound could see it go bankrupt within a year. Under such pressure, the SDF may eventually have to concede and make a deal with Damascus—a deal that under less unfavorable circumstances in 2018 and 2019 amounted to a surrender. In short, the current U.S. approach to Syria is already walking on thin ice.

While Jordan might reap a small trade income influx from reengaging with Assad, it will almost certainly be short lived and not stabilize southern Syria or revive Jordan’s faltering economy. Most importantly, it will not give the more than 1 million Syrian refugees in Jordan the confidence to return to Syria. The same can be said for other countries in the region that are increasing their engagement with the Syrian regime: Their respective diplomatic, geopolitical, and financial aspirations are almost certainly destined for failure. The only real winner here is Assad.

If Jordan and others in the region want to entertain a “step-for-step” approach toward Syria, the United States should be part of that equation, making it clear such a process should run both ways. If the Biden administration still stands by its public positions, then its words must begin to translate into clear and definitive actions. As of now, Assad appears to be welcoming reengagement, investment prospects, and diplomatic normalization while offering absolutely nothing in return. Silence from Washington and European capitals to these developments is damning.

Charles Lister is a senior fellow and director of the Syria and Counterterrorism and Extremism programs at the Middle East Institute. Twitter: @Charles_Lister

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