(CNSNews.com) – The two most influential countries in the Arab world have signaled their readiness to move towards rehabilitating Syrian President Bashar Assad, in a further setback to U.S. interests in the region.
Saudi Arabia reportedly plans to invite Assad to the Arab League’s annual summit which the kingdom is hosting next month, and Egypt’s foreign minister welcomed his Syrian counterpart for talks in Cairo at the weekend, the first visit of its kind in more than 11 years.
Both mark a reversal in a policy that has shunned Assad’s regime for more than a decade, a result of a civil war that has cost more than 350,000 lives, triggered refugee and humanitarian crises, drawn in outside powers, and spread instability and terrorism across Syria and the broader region.
Russian military intervention and support from Iran and Hezbollah helped the regime to turn the war in its favor, although it has not regained control over large parts of the country held by Kurdish and other rebel groups, particularly in the north-west and across the east and north-east.
In late 2021, then-State Department spokesman Ned Price said unequivocally that the Biden administration “will not express any support for efforts to normalize or to rehabilitate Bashar al-Assad, who is a brutal dictator,” and called on regional countries considering doing so to “carefully consider” the regime’s atrocities.
Small shifts in emphasis have become evident in recent weeks, however.
At an event at the National Press Club on March 9. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf said, “Our basic message has been if you’re going to engage with the [Assad] regime, get something for that.”
Last Monday, State Department principal deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel in similar comments said that “improving the situation for the Syrian people needs to be front and center in any engagement anyone has with the Assad regime.”
Although Patel a day later repeated the position that the administration doesn’t encourage normalization with Assad by others, he added the condition – “absent an authentic and enduring progress towards a political solution.”
Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) senior fellow and director of research David Adesnik said the latest development marked “a victory for Russia and Iran, not just Assad.”
“Moscow and Tehran are determined to show Assad will pay no price for his crimes, nor will anyone hold them accountable for participating in the atrocities,” he said.
“The Saudi position is deeply regrettable and affirms their lack of concern for human rights, but the far greater disappointment is that the Biden administration has been promoting normalization despite paying lip service to the cause of accountability for the Assad regime.”
In Cairo on Saturday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad “agreed to intensify channels of communication between the two countries at different levels during the next phase.”
“In light of the brotherhood and historical ties that link between the two countries, and the common Arab interest required of solidarity and brotherhood in the face of increasing regional and international challenges, the discussions addressed ways to help the Syrian people restore its unity and sovereignty on all its territories,” said Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid.
Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi traveled on Sunday to Jeddah, amid reports that the Saudis intend to invite Assad to the Arab League summit on May 19. Egypt plays an outsized role in the Arab League, which was formed in Cairo in 1945 and has its headquarters there.
According to Reuters, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan will travel to Damascus in the coming weeks to deliver an invitation to Assad.
Doing so would mark a dramatic shift for the kingdom: The Saudis pushed for the isolation of Assad after a harsh crackdown on dissent spiraled into civil war, and provided assistance to anti-regime rebels.
“Normalizing Assad’s terror is not merely morally repugnant but will not serve the safety and security interests of those who welcome the war criminal into the Arab League,” said FDD vice president for government relations and strategy Toby Dershowitz.
“The administration should double down on enforcement of existing U.S. sanctions on the Assad regime and work with the E.U. and others to do the same.”
“Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have already begun to send a strong message to the administration and to those who would look the other way in the face of Assad’s war crimes that impunity will not be tolerated,” Dershowitz said.
Last month the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen drew attention to what they called “the disappointingly slow pace of sanctions under the Caesar Act” – legislation signed into law in 2019 providing for sanctions for regime atrocities.
Last week former high-ranking U.S. officials and others appealed to the administration to take a firmer stance against the normalization of relations with the Assad regime.
News of an imminent Saudi invitation to the Arab League summit comes after reports that Syria and Saudi Arabia were looking to reopen shuttered embassies in each other’s capital.
The Saudi Gazette on March 23 quoted a foreign ministry source as saying talks were underway to restore consular services as part of a gradual return to normal bilateral relations.
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