The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden shouldn’t allow Arab leaders to rehabilitate Bashar al-Assad

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, on Friday. (Saudi Royal Court/Reuters)
5 min

When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke to the assembled leaders of the Arab League last week, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, newly restored to the organization, took off his translation headset and refused to listen. Assad’s mere presence in the hall shows that the Arab League is deaf to Ukraine’s pleas. Arab leaders have thrown in their lot with the Syrian butcher and his close ally Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Assad’s diplomatic “normalization” in the Arab world has been building for a while. Still, the images from the Arab League summit in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, were disturbing. Twelve years ago, the Syrian dictator was expelled from the league for brutally attacking his own people. Now, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has welcomed him back with kisses. In a speech, the Saudi host said it was time to “turn the page of the past,” adding: “We hope that this contributes to supporting Syria’s stability, resuming Syria’s normal role in the Arab world.”

Assad promised to cooperate with Arab nations on drug trafficking, brazenly using his own control over the massive captagon drug trade as a bargaining chip. In exchange, the Arab states promised billions in aid to Syria, mostly to be funneled through Assad’s corrupt coffers.

Zelensky appealed to the Arab leaders’ sense of morality. He argued that they should resist Russian influence and stand up for the principles of sovereignty and national independence. He tried to evoke sympathy for the Tatar Muslims in Crimea, who have faced persecution since Russia occupied the peninsula in 2014. He asked the league to stand against war crimes.

“I’m sure we can all be united in saving people from the cages of Russian prisons,” Zelensky told the assembled Arab leaders. “Unfortunately, there are some in the world and here among you who turn a blind eye to those cages and illegal annexations.”

To many, Zelensky’s invitation to Jiddah seemed like a cynical attempt to distract from Assad’s return. But it ended up having the reverse effect by exposing Arab states’ false “neutrality” on the Russia-Ukraine war. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for example, have refused to condemn Putin’s invasion and have instead used their economic power to bolster oil prices, undermining Western sanctions. Now, by praising Assad, Russia’s partner in war crimes, the Arab League was implicitly rejecting Zelensky’s appeals.

The Biden administration publicly says it won’t normalize relations with Assad but no longer objects to Arab countries doing so. This is an abdication of 12 years of U.S. commitments to hold Assad accountable for his mass atrocities. It is also a failure to implement U.S. law requiring sanctions on those who aid the Syrian dictator.

In 2019, Congress passed a law known as the Caesar Act that aimed to pressure Assad to stop his campaign of mass torture and mass murder of innocent people. But both the Trump and Biden administrations barely implemented it. Now, Congress is trying to pressure the U.S. government into action.

This month, the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously approved the Assad Anti-Normalization Act, sending it to the House floor. The bill has 30 co-sponsors who span the political landscape, including top Democrats such as Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.) and top Republicans such as committee chairman Michael McCaul (Tex.). If passed into law, it would shore up the Caesar Act by extending it until 2032 and closing several loopholes.

Among other things, the new bill would require the administration to determine whether Assad’s purported “charities” are diverting humanitarian aid for the regime and singles out the group Syria Trust for Development, which is connected to first lady Asma al-Assad. The legislation would also require the administration to investigate and report on any financial transactions in Assad-controlled areas coming from any country in the Middle East. (It’s no wonder that several of these governments have been lobbying against the bill.)

The Biden administration’s willingness to condone Arab acceptance of Assad has provoked other prominent critics outside of Congress. The Assad Anti-Normalization Act has been endorsed by former U.S. national security officials from both parties, including former House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Eliot L. Engel and former national security adviser H.R. McMaster.

“The United States should continue to isolate the war criminal Assad and his murderous regime,” McMaster said when endorsing the bill. “Assad and his Russian and Iranian sponsors want wealthy countries to underwrite the reconstruction of the cities they reduced to rubble.”

It’s true that sanctions can have unintended consequences for civilians, which is why the legislation carves out exceptions for genuine humanitarian aid. Critics will also argue that sanctions on Assad haven’t worked so far. But that’s only because the Caesar Act has never been properly used.

Exerting pressure on those funding Assad might be the only remaining way to deter them from helping Assad rebuild until he releases the thousands who are being tortured in his dungeons and stops the slaughter of those Syrians living outside of his forces’ control.

By turning a blind eye to Assad’s war crimes, members of the Arab League have made clear that they don’t care about Putin’s war crimes either. But unless somebody does something to hold Assad and his enablers accountable, their Syrian and Ukrainian victims won’t be the last.