US softens on Arab outreach to Syria’s Assad


WASHINGTON — Three words — “Assad must go” — once came to define US policy in Syria. Today, the position of the Biden administration could be summed up as, Assad must be normalized without something in return.

The Arab world is rebuilding ties with the President Bashar al-Assadmore than ten years after the regime violently toppled a peaceful anti-government uprising, sparking a civil war that killed hundreds of thousands of people, created a new generation of extremist groups and caused the displacement crisis largest since World War II.

The Biden administration has long said it opposes the normalization of the Syrian government in the absence of serious progress toward UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which in 2015 laid out a roadmap for a political settlement to end the crisis. . But last month, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf provided a slightly different message.

“It’s been our basic message [that] if you are going to fight the [Assad] regime, get something for that,” Leaf said during an Al-Monitor event on March 9.

She repeated that message to reporters last week, adding that “the US’s own approach to Syria remains unchanged.”

Her comments came as key US partners, including the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt, have again taken steps to recapture what they see as a far-sighted regime in staying power. With the help of Russia and Iran, Assad’s forces have retaken much of Syria, except for a Kurdish-controlled pocket in the northeast and the rebel stronghold of Idlib province in the northwest.

“What we are reading from what the Americans are saying is, ‘we are not against the initiatives you are taking but the [US] sanctions will remain,’” an Arab diplomat told Al-Monitor, speaking on condition of anonymity. “What we have seen is, let the Arabs try [outreach to Assad]and let us see what the results are.”

The regional rapprochement with Syria dates back to 2018, when the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain reopened their embassies in Damascus. Oman took another step in 2020 to become the first Gulf state to reinstate its ambassador.

But mending fences has accelerated under Biden and after the deadly Feb. 6 earthquakes, which killed about 6,000 people in Syria and gave his neighbors political cover to re-engage with Assad under the guise of providing disaster relief.

Last month, Assad and his wife, Asma al-Assad, paid an official visit to the United Arab Emirates, and on Saturday, Syria’s top diplomat, Faisal Mekdad, he traveled to Cairo on the first such trip by a Syrian foreign minister to Egypt in more than a decade.

There is widespread speculation that Saudi Arabia, which has supplied arms to rebels seeking to topple Assad, will invite him to the Arab League summit in Riyadh in May. Readmission into the 22-member group, which suspended Syria’s membership in 2011, would be the biggest indicator yet of Assad’s rehabilitation.

The Biden administration has publicly opposed such efforts to legitimize Assad, but critics say he may be putting more pressure behind the scenes to prevent him, such as increasing economic sanctions at a time when Syria asking for foreign investment to rebuild the war. rocky country.

Bipartisan House and Senate leaders recently pointed to the “disappointingly slow pace of sanctions” under the Caesar Act, which Congress intended as a tool to choke off Assad’s financial lifelines. Last week, the administration issued its first Caesar sanctions, targeting prominent figures in Syria’s multi-billion dollar narcotics operations.

Mona Yacoubian, a senior adviser on Syria at the US Institute of Peace, said the Biden administration has taken a more realistic stance on normalization.

“If we’re going to spend diplomatic capital, what are we going to spend it on? Rather than failed efforts to get countries to continue isolating, maybe spend that capital on efforts to actually get something for him,” said Yacoubian. She mentioned several incremental possibilities that would have an impact on the ground, including expanded humanitarian access and a national ceasefire.

A State Department spokesman did not respond to emailed questions about what the administration expects partners to receive in exchange for their engagement with Assad. Leaf was skeptical of claims by some regional states that it might be nice for Damascus to peel off Tehran, whose militias helped turn the 12-year war in Assad’s favor.

Steven Heydemannnon-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Center Institute for Middle East Policy, says that there is little to suggest that recent overtures have prompted significant changes in the regime’s behavior.

“The Assad regime is getting more of what it wants by normalizing, not making concessions,” Heydemann said. “Promote the gains and continue his current behavior.”

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US suggests greater sanctions on corruption in Lebanon

The Biden administration imposed new sanctions this week targeting two Lebanese brothers it accused of corrupt business practices. The Treasury Department on Tuesday blacklist Raymond Zina Rahme and Teddy Zina Rahmeaccused of obtaining energy contracts through a “very opaque process” and of importing polluted fuel that damaged power plants across Lebanon.

“This action sends a clear message to those in power in Lebanon: end any corrupt dealings or risk being the focus of our next investigation,” Treasury’s Deputy Secretary for Terrorism Brian Nelson he told reporters on Wednesday.

A Treasury press release said the Rahme brothers used their political connections to enrich themselves. Nelson declined to elaborate on those ties and said they did not factor into the administration’s decision to nominate the businessmen, one of whom is said to be close to the Hezbollah ally and presidential contender. Sleiman Frangiah.

The small Mediterranean country has been without a president since Michel Aun he completed his six-year term at the end of October, and the political paralysis contributed to Lebanon’s economic downturn. Homes receive an average of one to two hours of state-supplied electricity per day.

Nelson described the corruption as “very endemic especially to the Lebanese electricity sector.” Watchdog Transparency International ranks Lebanon 150th out of 180 nations in its Annual Corruption Perceptions Index.

China to host Saudi, foreign ministers of Iran

Less than a month after agreeing to restore ties, Saudi Arabia and Iran will send their top diplomats to Beijing on Thursday, seven years after the regional heavyweights severed ties. The Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reported that Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud and its counterpart in Iran Hossein Amir-Abdollahian he will discuss how to promote the deal that China succeeded in promoting last month.

Beatrice Farhat writes that “all eyes are now focused on the Saudi-Iranian detente and how it will affect the proxy wars that have been going on for years.” As we covered in The Takeaway last week, the Saudis are believed to have been given some assurances that their arsenal would pressure the Houthi rebels in Yemen, where Western officials say Iranian military aid has fueled the militants’ war effort.

In another sign of Tehran’s improved relations with the Gulf, Iran has appointed Reza Ameri as its first ambassador to the United Arab Emirates since 2016, Salim A. Essaid reports. Ameri previously served as Iran’s ambassador to Algeria, Sudan and Eritrea, according to state media.

What else are we reading

• Demand for large homes in the Saudi property market is falling sharply as more young people move out of their family homes earlier to seek jobs elsewhere, Jack Dutton reports.

• With Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections less than six weeks away, Andrew Wilks reports that public opinion polls are showing a tough competition between the two dominant candidates for President Tayyip Erdogan was accepted and the leader of the opposition Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

Ben Caspit reports that Israel is concerned about reports that the Biden administration is considering reaching an interim nuclear deal with Iran.

• Speaking to Ali Hashem, an Iranian official does not talk about “less on less” as “the result of some group brainstorming.”

• In Professional Al-Monitoring, Samuel Wendel she explains why last month’s Credit Suisse crisis is reverberating across the Gulf.

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