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Opinion Biden is tacitly endorsing Assad’s normalization

A man collects wood from rubble of damaged buildings in Homs, Syria, on Oct. 3. (Yamam Al Shaar/Reuters)

Ever since he met President Biden at the White House in July, Jordan’s King Abdullah II has been leading a rapid regional normalization of the Bashar al-Assad regime. This runs counter to U.S.-Syria policy and counter to U.S. law. But the Biden administration has decided it no longer will actively fight this trend. The consequences could be disastrous.

When Abdullah took a phone call from Assad this week, he ended a decade-long policy of isolating the Syrian dictator for his mass atrocities and unrestrained violence on civilians, which have had catastrophic effects across the region and beyond. Members of Congress and Syrian opposition groups — aware that Jordan had reopened its border with Syria just a few days before — were rightfully outraged and called on the Biden administration to act.

The Arab push to normalize relations with Assad isn’t new. But its advancing speed is alarming to many. Salem al-Meslet, president of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, led a delegation to Washington last month to urge the U.S. government and the international community to keep pressure on the regime.

“How can you reward a ruler who killed his own people with chemical weapons and who made refugees out of half of the country’s population?” he told me in an interview. “Now, it seems like nobody is saying no to this. One word from this administration would make a huge difference.”

But the State Department actually welcomed the border announcement, at first, and has said nothing about the Abdullah-Assad phone call. Jordanian media reported that Biden gave Abdullah explicit assurances he would not be sanctioned under the Caesar Act, the U.S. law meant to prevent normalization of the regime until Assad stops the slaughter.

A senior administration official told me that it is still U.S. policy to discourage any country from normalizing relations with Assad.

“We did not give Jordan a green light or an orange light. We did not support the call” between Abdullah and Assad, the official said. “We’ve made clear that sanctions restrictions remain in place and nothing should come for free.” Yet the same official conceded that the Biden administration will no longer actively work to stop countries from engaging with Assad, except when the law specifically requires it.

This new approach, in which the United States publicly opposes normalization but privately looks the other way, was on clear display in the weeks after the Biden-Abdullah White House meeting. Soon after, a deal was struck to pipe Egyptian natural gas to Lebanon through Jordan and Syria, which will surely result in cash payments to Assad. Rather than stand in the way, the Biden administration advised the participating countries that they could avoid sanctions by financing the deal through the World Bank, essentially promoting a loophole in U.S. law.

Regional countries got the message. At last month’s U.N. General Assembly, Syrian officials met with several Arab leaders, after which Egypt’s foreign minister pledged to help “restore Syria’s position in the Arab world.”

Proponents of normalization argue that 10 years of isolation and pressure on Assad have not produced any progress on a political settlement, while sanctions have exacerbated Syrians’ suffering. They also argue that Arab engagement can dilute Iranian power in Syria.

One main proponent of such an approach over the years has been Brett McGurk, the Biden White House’s top Middle East adviser. In a 2019 Foreign Affairs essay entitled “Hard Truths in Syria,” he argued that the United States should cease opposing efforts by its Arab partners to normalize Assad. He also wrote that the United States should encourage its partners within Syria, such as the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, to strike a deal with the Assad regime so U.S. forces can leave and Russia and the regime can take over responsibility there.

The glaring problem with this approach is that the Assad regime and Russia have violated every deal they’ve struck with local groups, subjecting them to new cruelty and suffering. The long-term result will be more extremism, refugees and destabilization.

“The conflict in Syria has destabilized the entire Middle East region. Normalizing relations now will only allow that destabilization to continue,” the ranking Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations committees said in a statement.

The only hope for real peace, stability and justice in Syria is for the United States to reengage diplomatically and work to revive and lead the international political process. Meanwhile, the United States should help to improve the lives of Syrians living outside of Assad’s control, rather than advising them to strike bargains with their oppressor.

There are no good choices in Syria, but tacitly allowing a mass murderer to be welcomed back into the diplomatic fold is not an acceptable choice. Normalizing Assad won’t end the war, and looking the other way is a morally and strategically bankrupt strategy.