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Bashar al Assad Must Pay

Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Image: Creative Commons.

Arab leaders have welcomed Syria back into the diplomatic fold, but the U.S. Congress remains committed to holding the regime of Bashar al Assad accountable for a decade of atrocities. 

In the House, 42 co-sponsors have lined up behind the Assad Anti-Normalization Act. Sponsors range from California progressive Barbara Lee to staunch conservatives like Jim Banks of Indiana. Yet the bill’s fate may depend on whether the White House is ready to enforce tougher sanctions on the Assad regime.

Tacit Endorsements

Four years ago, Congress passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act with overwhelming bipartisan support. Above all, the law sought to deprive Assad of the resources necessary to sustain his war against the people of Syria. The goal was not regime change, but an end to killing and torture.

Specifically, the act sought to intensify sanctions put in place in 2011 during the earliest days of the Syrian conflict. Most importantly, the Caesar Act authorized secondary sanctions, that is, sanctions on anyone, anywhere who does business with the Assad regime, instead of primary sanctions that mainly prevent Americans from transacting with blacklisted Syrians.

Going one step further, the lawmakers who crafted the Caesar Act did not allow the president to impose secondary sanctions at his discretion. Rather, they made the sanctions mandatory, creating a legal obligation for the president to impose them on all eligible targets. (At the same time, the law reinforced efforts to prevent sanctions from interfering with humanitarian aid.)

While often at loggerheads with Congress, the Trump administration heeded the mandate to enforce Caesar, adding 113 targets to the U.S. blacklist during the latter half of 2020. The Biden administration pledged to continue this effort, yet little action followed. After taking a closer look at the issue, a Washington Post columnist concluded, “Biden is tacitly endorsing Assad’s normalization.”

Amplifying Deterrence From Engaging With Assad

There is no question that Arab leaders began softening on Assad several months after Biden took office. Lawmakers gently began to communicate their concern about this dynamic to the White House. As 2022 began, the chairmen and ranking members of both the House and Senate foreign relations committees wrote to the president that “formal diplomatic engagement with the Syrian regime sets a dangerous precedent for authoritarians who seek to commit similar crimes against humanity.” The solution, lawmakers insisted, was vigorous enforcement of the Caesar Act.

As an economic instrument, sanctions could not have prevented Assad’s diplomatic rehabilitation, which culminated with the warm welcome he received last month at the Arab League’s annual summit in Riyadh. Yet secondary sanctions are precisely the right tool for preventing diplomatic engagement from generating economic benefits.

The Saudi crown prince will suffer no consequences for embracing Assad, yet if Saudi, Emirati, and Lebanese firms begin to do business with the Assad regime and its networks, those firms will lose access to the U.S. market. The sanctions are also likely to drive away partners who prefer not to jeopardize their own standing with the U.S. government. Those risks are much greater than the likely benefits of investing in Syria, with its shattered economy and corrupt regime.

A central purpose of the Assad Anti-Normalization Act is to amplify this deterrent effect by ensuring the Biden administration enforces secondary sanctions. First, the bill adds eight years to the life of the Caesar Act, extending it through 2032. Next, it broadens the targeting guidelines to include all members of Syria’s National Assembly, all senior figures in Assad’s Ba’ath Party, anyone who provides financial services to the regime, and anyone who aids in its theft of humanitarian aid.

Most importantly, at the request of the chairman and ranking member of an appropriate congressional committee, the president must determine within 30 days whether a specific person meets the criteria for Caesar sanctions. In effect, this provision empowers top lawmakers to nominate targets when the president resists his obligation to enforce the law.

Human Rights and Impunity Don’t Mix

Based on its public statements, one might expect the Biden administration to welcome the Assad Anti-Normalization Act. After the Syrian leader landed in Riyadh, a State Department spokesperson insisted, “we don’t support normalization with the Assad regime and we don’t support our partners doing so.” White House Press Secretary Karin Jean-Pierre said the administration has made clear to Arab governments that Caesar sanctions remain in effect. 

Yet just three months ago, the assistant secretary of state in charge of Middle Eastern affairs was telling multiple audiences that Washington wants Arab governments to re-engage with Assad, as long as he offers appropriate concessions. That may still be the administration’s actual position. Jean-Pierre said that Caesar sanctions remain in effect, which is a legal fact. She did not commit the administration to their vigorous enforcement, even if that is the impression her comments left on most observers.

The more direct question the White House may soon have to answer is whether it supports or opposes the Assad Anti-Normalization Act. If there is a vote on the House floor, the bill may get 350 or even 400 votes, making opposition from the White House difficult to explain. To avoid such pressure, the White House is likely to do all it can to prevent the bill from getting to the floor, if not in the House, then perhaps in the Senate. Sources on the Hill report this effort is already underway. Instead, the administration should recall the commitment it made during its first days in office to “putting human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy.” In Syria, one cannot support both human rights and impunity for Assad.

David Adesnik is a senior fellow and director of research at FDD.

Written By

Dr. David Adesnik is a senior fellow and the director of research at FDD, where he is responsible for the oversight of FDD publications and the supervision of FDD’s team of research analysts. His own research focuses on Syria and Iran, especially their illicit oil trade and Iran’s use of proxy forces to project influence across the region. Previously, David served as policy director at the Foreign Policy Initiative and was a visiting fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. For two years, he served as deputy director for Joint Data Support at the U.S. Department of Defense, where he focused on the modeling and simulation of irregular warfare and counterinsurgency. He also spent several years as a research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses. In that capacity, he spent four months in Baghdad as an operations research and systems analyst for Multinational Corps – Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.  In 2008, he was part of the foreign policy and national security staff for John McCain’s presidential campaign.