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After Arab League vote, US 'skeptical' Syria’s Assad will make concessions

The Syrian government has yet to grant any major concession in exchange for its regional reintegration.
People walk past election campaign billboards depicting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a candidate for the upcoming presidential vote, in the capital Damascus, on May 25, 2021.

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has voiced concern over the Arab League’s welcoming of Syria back into the fold after more than a decade of isolation, but stopped short of condemning the decision made by some of its Arab partners. 

On Sunday, the 22-member Arab League voted in defiance of the United States to re-admit Syria, whose membership was suspended in November 2011 following the government’s violent crackdown on the mass uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule. The decision now clears the way for Saudi Arabia to formally extend an invitation for Assad to attend next Sunday’s Arab League summit in Riyadh. 

The vote at an Arab League emergency meeting in Cairo came days after Secretary of State Antony Blinken cautioned his Egyptian and Jordanian counterparts against normalizing Assad’s regime, which the US government blames for the deaths of more than 300,000 civilians, the displacement of millions of Syrians and the use of chemical weapons against his own people. 

Backed by Russia and Iran, Assad has won back a majority of the territory his forces lost during the 12-year civil war, aside from pockets in northern Syria controlled by US-supported Kurdish fighters and a mix of rebel groups seeking to topple Assad. 

Having reached the conclusion that Assad is here to stay, regional countries that once called for his ouster are gradually resuming relations with Damascus. The fence-mending was accelerated by the recent China-brokered Saudi-Iran rapprochement, as well as the Feb. 6 earthquakes that killed some 6,000 people in Syria. 

Following the quakes, the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia each met with Assad in the Syrian capital. On May 1, the top diplomats from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq met in Amman to discuss a framework for Syria’s return.   

The State Department said Sunday that while Syria doesn’t “merit” readmission into the Arab League, the United States and its Arab partners share the same long-term goals for the country, including reaching a political solution to the conflict and expanding humanitarian access. 

Qutaiba Idlbi, who leads the Atlantic Council's Syria portfolio as a nonresident fellow, said the Syrian political opposition should focus its conversations with Arab partners on extracting possible concessions from Assad, “so at least the readmission or normalization process is not given for free.” 

Some of the Arab countries that are moving to normalize want to curb the smuggling across Syria’s borders of the highly addictive amphetamine Captagon, and also seek a return of the Syrian refugees they host. Sunni Gulf countries, in particular, hope to reduce Iran’s influence in the country.  

But so far, Assad has yet to make a single meaningful concession. As a precondition for its re-admission into the Arab League, Damascus reportedly agreed to take back just 1,000 of the roughly 660,000 Syrian refugees registered in Jordan, the Wall Street Journal reported.  

“We understand our partners intend to use direct engagement with the Assad regime to further push for and demand progress," a State Department spokesperson said on Sunday. 

“While we are skeptical of Assad’s willingness to take the steps necessary to resolve Syria’s crisis, we are aligned with our Arab partners on the ultimate objectives," the spokesperson added.  

The region’s embrace of Assad comes as he seeks massive foreign investment to rebuild the war-ravaged country, the cost of which is estimated in the billions of dollars. The regime no doubt hopes its Arab neighbors will pressure the United States and Europe to lift tough economic sanctions that remain a major obstacle to reconstruction. 

The State Department spokesperson, however, stressed that US sanctions against Syria remain in full effect, including those issued under the bipartisan Caesar Act. The Biden administration recently announced its first Caesar sanctions, which targeted prominent figures in Syria’s drug trade.  

In a statement Monday, Reps. Michael McCaul and Gregory Meeks, chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called on the Biden administration to “fully enforce the Caesar Act and other sanctions to freeze normalization efforts with this war criminal.”

Sunday's Arab League vote came the same day Biden’s top national security aide, Jake Sullivan, met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah. The White House readout of their meeting made no mention of Syria, an omission that the Middle East Institute’s Randa Slim said was an indicator of where Syria fits among the administration’s foreign policy priorities.  

“Here was [Sullivan] meeting with the leader of the country that is leading this push to normalize relations with Assad ... and yet, it was not discussed,” said Slim, director of MEI’s Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues Program. 

She added, "[The administration] is not interested in getting entangled in protracted conflicts of the region, and Syria is one of them."

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