Former US officials sound alarm on Biden’s Syria policy


WASHINGTON – As President Bashar al-Assad is gradually welcomed back into the Arab fold, a group of nearly 40 Syria experts and former US officials are calling on the Biden administration to push back stronger against the normalization of the regime.

“Unconditional regime normalization is not inevitable,” they wrote in a letter Monday to President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “Opposing regime normalization in one word is not enough, as allowing it is implicitly short-sighted and damaging to any hope for regional security and stability.”

The letter, which was made available to Al-Monitor, outlines concerns about the approach of the Biden administration towards Syria, where since 2011 fighting between the Syrian government and the opposition groups that wanted to overthrow it, d ‘left nearly half a million people dead and created the world’s worst refugee crisis. .

Among the signatories of the letter are former US special envoys to Syria Frederic Hof, James Jeffrey and Joel Rayburn and former assistant secretaries of state for Near Eastern affairs Jeffrey Feltman and Anne Patterson. Also signing was former head of CENTCOM Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, former acting CIA director John McLaughlin and William Roebuck, former US deputy special envoy for the Global Coalition to Destroy ISIS.

His letter comes as Arab states that have long ostracized Assad for his brutality against the Syrian people are slowly building ties with Damascus, a trend accelerated by the international outpouring of sympathy that followed last month’s deadly earthquakes.

Despite Washington’s warnings, US partners including the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain and Egypt have stepped up their involvement with the Syrian government in recent years. Regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia is also said to be discussing a resumption of ties, and there is increased talk of the possibility of Syria being readmitted to the Arab League.

The Biden administration says it will not normalize the regime, or encourage other countries to do so, without making progress toward a political solution in Syria based on United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254. , which the UAE was criticized a year ago for welcoming Assad for a state visit.

“It’s been our basic message [that] if you’re going to fight the regime, find something to do with it,” said Barbara Leaf, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, during a recent Al-Monitor event.

Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute who coordinated the letter, accused the administration of publicly opposing normalization while privately giving an implicit yellow light to Arab states.

“[The US] The message is, we will never normalize and we discourage normalization,” said Lister. “There is none of that, ‘Don’t you dare normalize with the regime.’

The letter sent on Monday argues that regional normalization “erodes the ability of the international community to shape a political process aimed at resolving the crisis sensibly.” It outlines several recommendations for an “alternative actionable vision” for Syria, including maintaining a light US military presence in northeastern Syria in partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to sustain the campaign against the Islamic State.

US troops are also there to counter Iran’s presence in the war-torn country. Last week, a drone linked to Iran attacked an American base in northeastern Syria, killing a contractor and injuring several service members.

The letter also calls for additional pressure on foreign governments to repatriate thousands of suspected ISIS fighters and their families living in prisons and camps run by the SDF in northeastern Syria, and Gen. Michael Kurilla, head of US military Central. Command, warned recently at the risk of creating ISIS “army in detention.”

The signatories of the letter also recommend that the United States and its allies develop a Plan B for the delivery of humanitarian aid. Syria’s top aid has long threatened Russia to end a UN resolution that allows food, fuel and other supplies to be sent from Turkey to parts of Syria without the permission of the Syrian government, which has a history of aid deliveries to manipulate.

After the deadly earthquakes on February 6, the US Treasury Department issued a general license aimed at ensuring that earthquake aid did not run afoul of US sanctions on Syria. In their letter, the experts and former officials urge the administration to come up with a clear definition of “earthquake relief,” describing the current guidance as “many ways to evade sanctions.”

“With building demolitions being reported throughout the regime areas, together with new financial flows, there is now an urgent need for independent monitoring of all aid-related activities and mechanisms to address the inappropriate types that may harm do for the population in question. served,” the letter read.

The letter comes days after leading Republicans and Democrats expressed frustration that Biden did not once use the bipartisan Caesar Act to apply economic pressure to the regime’s beneficiaries.

Writing to Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas), ranking member Gregory Meeks (DN.Y.), Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (DN.J. ) and ranking member Jim Risch (R-Idaho) noted the “disappointingly slow pace of sanctions under the Caesar Act,” which they described as “a powerful tool to limit efforts to restore or restore relations with the Assad regime normalization.”

Since taking office, the administration has issued several rounds of sanctions on Syrian military and intelligence officials under various authorities, most recently slapping one with a visa ban for his alleged involvement in a massacre 2013 in the Damascus suburb of Tadamon.

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