The U.S. Should Discourage Its Arab Allies from Reconciling with Syria

October 11, 2021 | Josh Rogin
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On October 3, King Abdullah of Jordan had a phone conversation with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad—the first between the two heads of state since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. And nearly three years ago, the United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus. Washington, Josh Rogin reports, is refraining from pressuring friendly countries not to normalize relations with the Syrian dictator, who was once a pariah in the Arab world:

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 Abdullah’s meeting with President Biden at the White House [in July]. 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 [on Assad] 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 UN 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 ten 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. . . . 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.

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.

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