(CNSNews.com) – A group of former senior U.S. officials and Mideast specialists is urging the Biden administration to take a firmer stance against the normalization of relations with the Assad regime, arguing that it needs to do more than just verbally voice its opposition.
“Piecemeal normalization efforts by some regional governments do not address U.S. national security interests or human rights issues, and they erode the international community’s capacity to shape a political process aimed at meaningfully resolving the crisis,” reads the letter to President 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,” it says.
Instead the signatories call for a broad approach that includes a formalized ceasefire, improved humanitarian aid delivery, pursuit of accountability for war crimes, a continuation of the campaign against ISIS.
More than 350,000 Syrians – some estimates are much higher – have died in the civil war, in which Bashar Assad’s regime has committed atrocities, including the documented use of chemical weapons. Millions are displaced inside and outside their country.
The State Department has stated repeatedly that the U.S. does not intend to normalize relations with Assad and does not support other countries doing so, yet, if anything, governments in the region, including U.S. allies, are moving ever more quickly in that direction.
Saudi Arabia, which led the way in steps to isolate Damascus in 2011, is the latest to do so, with reported plans to reopen embassies in the two countries.
The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain set the ball rolling when they reopened their embassies in Damascus in 2018, and the UAE even permitted Assad to visit a year ago, his first trip to an Arab state since the conflict began.
In recent months Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has indicated a readiness to meet with Assad, and several Arab states, including Iraq and Lebanon, are pushing for Syria’s return to the Arab League, 12 years after it was suspended.
Signatories of the letter to Biden and Blinken include former Syria special envoys James Jeffrey and Joel Rayburn, former U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, former assistant secretaries of state Anne Patterson and Jeffrey Feltman, and retired U.S. Marine general and former Mideast envoy Anthony Zinni.
They were joined by academics specializing in the region, and leaders of organizations such as American Coalition for Syria, Syrian American Council, Americans for a Free Syria, and Syrian Emergency Task Force.
One of the tools Congress has given the executive branch to respond to the Syria crisis is the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which provides for sanctions designed to promote accountability for atrocities committed by the regime.
President Trump signed it into law at the end of 2019 and when it came into effect in mid-2020, his administration imposed Caesar Act sanctions on nine individuals and entities, for providing support for or doing business with the regime.
Since then, however, no further sanctions have been imposed pursuant to the Caesar Act – until Tuesday, when the Biden administration in its first use of the authority announced Caesar Act sanctions against two Syrians, businessman Khalid Qaddour and Samer Kamal al-Assad, a cousin of the president, for their involvement in the illicit drugs trade in support of the regime.
Less than a week ago, the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee in a bipartisan letter to Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen drew attention to what they called “the disappointingly slow pace of sanctions under the Caesar Act.”
“In addition to the Caesar Act’s importance in promoting accountability, an administration levying congressionally-mandated Caesar sanctions is a powerful tool to curb efforts to rehabilitate or normalize relations with the Assad regime,” they wrote.
Asked on Tuesday how the new sanctions fit into a wider strategy of preventing the normalization of Assad, State Department principal deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel replied, “our stance against normalization remains unchanged.”
“We will not normalize with the Assad regime, nor would we encourage others, absent an authentic and enduring progress towards a political solution, to do so.”
After Patel described the Caesar Act as “a valuable tool” to hold the regime accountable, he was asked why the administration had waited two years to use the sanctions authority.
The process is “intensive” he said, and one “that we want to make sure that we get right.”
Patel said the Caesar Act was “an important tool, but it’s not the only tool that we have available to hold the Assad regime accountable.”
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