The Significance of Assad’s Visit to the UAE

March 23, 2022 | David Adesnik
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On Friday, the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad visited the United Arab Emirates; the U.S. State Department said that it was “profoundly disappointed” at Abu Dhabi’s “apparent attempt to legitimize” the bloodthirsty dictator. Yet as David Adesnik argues, “the Biden administration has sent consistent signals to Arab allies indicating its tacit approval of normalization with Damascus.” Adesnik warns that this attitude toward a “veteran war criminal” like Assad may embolden other enemies of the West, including Vladimir Putin.

During the first months of its tenure, the Biden administration opposed efforts to engage with the Assad regime, warning that the United States would fully enforce sanctions mandated by the [2019] Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. Last August, however, the White House publicly supported Syria’s inclusion in a four-way energy deal with Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon that directly violates the Caesar Act’s proscription of material support for the Assad regime.

Despite that pivot, the administration insists its policy has not changed. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other senior U.S. officials emphasize that Washington will neither lift sanctions nor pursue normalization with Damascus. Yet Blinken and others are careful not to say that the United States will actively oppose or interfere with such efforts.

In January, senior lawmakers from both parties sent a letter to the president stating their opposition to any “tacit approval of formal diplomatic engagement with the Syrian regime” by Washington’s Arab allies. The authors asserted there should be consequences for such engagement and called on Biden “to utilize the robust, mandatory deterrence mechanisms” in the Caesar Act “to maintain the Assad regime’s isolation.” The State Department’s tepid declaration of disappointment with the Emirates for hosting Assad shows the administration has not heeded lawmakers’ advice.

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