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Former US officials sound alarm on Biden's Syria policy

A group of former US officials including Marine General Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie Jr. and former Syria envoy James Jeffrey are urging the Biden administration to counter the region's rapprochement with Syria.
Commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. Kenneth McKenzie testifies during a Senate Armed Services hearing on Capitol Hill March 15, 2022 in Washington, DC. The committee met to receive testimony on the posture of U.S. Central Command and U.S. Africa Command, two of the eleven unified combatant commands in the U.S. Department of Defense. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

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 more forcefully push back against the regime’s normalization.

“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 word only is not enough, as tacitly allowing it is short-sighted and damaging to any hope for regional security and stability.”

The letter, provided to Al-Monitor, outlines concerns with the Biden administration's approach to Syria, where since 2011 fighting between the Syrian government and the opposition groups seeking to overthrow it have left nearly half a million people dead and created the world’s worst refugee crisis. 

Signatories to the letter include 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 on were former CENTCOM chief Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, former CIA acting director John McLaughlin and William Roebuck, former US deputy special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.

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

Despite Washington’s warnings, US partners including the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain and Egypt have boosted their engagement with Syria’s government in recent years. Regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia is also said to be discussing a resumption of ties, and there’s increasing talk of Syria’s potential readmission into the Arab League.

The Biden administration says it won’t normalize the regime, nor will it encourage other countries to do so absent progress toward a political solution in Syria based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Critics see a subtle shift in the public messaging from the State Department, which just a year ago blasted the UAE for welcoming Assad for a state visit. 

"Our basic message has been [that] if you’re going to engage with the regime, get something for that,” US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf said 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 Arab states a tacit yellow light.

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

The letter sent Monday argues that regional normalization “erodes the international community’s capacity to shape a political process aimed at meaningfully resolving the crisis.” It lays out several recommendations for “an alternative and actionable vision” for Syria, including maintaining a light US military footprint in northeast 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-affiliated country. Last week, an Iran-linked drone attacked an American base in northeastern Syria, killing a contractor and wounding several service members. 

The letter also calls for more pressure on foreign governments to repatriate the tens of thousands of suspected ISIS fighters and their families who are living in SDF-run prisons and camps in northeastern Syria, and which Gen. Michael Kurilla, head of the US military's Central Command, recently warned risked creating an ISIS "army in detention."

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

Following the deadly earthquakes on Feb. 6, the US Treasury Department issued a general license aimed at ensuring earthquake aid didn't run afoul of US sanctions on Syria. In their letter, the experts and former officials recommend the administration come up with a clear definition of “earthquake relief,” describing the current guidance as creating “many avenues for sanctions evasion.”

“With building demolitions being reported throughout regime areas, along with new flows of finance, there is now an acute need for independent monitoring of all aid-related activities and mechanisms to address the kinds of improprieties that threaten to harm the very population aid was meant to serve,” the letter read. 

The letter comes days after leading Republicans and Democrats expressed frustration that Biden hasn’t once used the bipartisan Caesar Act to apply economic pressure on the regime’s benefactors.  

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

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

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