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US foreign policy

US warns allies of sanctions for those who engage with Syria’s Assad regime

“You know, it’s very difficult to imagine normalizing diplomatic relations with a regime that’s been so brutal to its own people,” the US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said

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Syria held presidential elections on Wednesday, despite the United States and Europe saying they would not recognize the outcome, which is widely expected to see Bashar al-Assad re-elected.

And as Assad continues to cement his grip on power in the war-torn country, a senior State Department official warned against normalizing ties with the Syrian president.

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Several Arab states have re-established diplomatic ties with Damascus, and reports suggest that more countries could follow suit.

Iran and Russia have invested fighters and money to prop up Bashar al-Assad, who has been in power for 21 years.

But Moscow and Tehran have been unable to garner support or money for reconstruction efforts in Syria due to crushing economic sanctions imposed by the West on those who attempt to work with Assad.

In a call with reporters, the US official downplayed any potential to soften Washington's stance on Assad and suggested the Caesar Act sanctions would remain in place. “The [Caesar Act is a] law [that] seeks to limit the ability of Bashar and others in the Syrian government to profit from the conflict and from any reconstruction that takes place afterwards, after the conflict. So that law is going to remain unless the Congress chooses to repeal it. But as I said, with overwhelming bipartisan support for the law’s original passage, that does not look likely anytime soon.”

Arab states have floated the idea of lifting Syria's suspension from the Arab League in a bid to drive a wedge between Assad and Tehran.

“We have absolutely no intention to normalize our own relations with the Assad regime. And we would certainly, I think, call on all other governments that are thinking of doing so to think very carefully about how the Syrian president has treated his own people,” the senior US official said Wednesday.

“You know, it’s very difficult to imagine normalizing diplomatic relations with a regime that’s been so brutal to its own people,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.

Shortly after taking office, the Biden administration froze arms sales to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia as it embarked on a so-called policy review. The arms sales to the UAE will move ahead, Biden administration officials have said.

However, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that the UAE’s ties with China had worried White House officials that agreed to go ahead with the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the Gulf nation.

Asked if the decision by Arab states to normalize ties with the Assad regime would threaten US arms sales, the US official would not publicly speculate on what the consequences of dealing with Assad might be.

“But we do remind our allies and partners to be careful in thinking about their potential exposure to sanctions by dealing with this regime and also to think carefully about the atrocities that the Assad regime has visited upon the Syrian people over the last decade,” the official told Al Arabiya English.

“Do they really want to be closely associated with a regime that has used chemical weapons and barrel bombs on its own people? I think we should be focused on accountability for the regime, more than re-establishing diplomatic relations,” the State Department official added.

Asked about US military and diplomatic presence in northeast Syria, the official said this would not change “any time soon.”
Washington has said its forces are present in the area to ensure the defeat of ISIS.

Last week, the top US general for the Middle East made an unannounced trip to NE Syria.

From a US base in Syria, US Central Command General Frank McKenzie said it was important to keep the pressure on ISIS “because ISIS still has an aspirational goal to attack the United States homeland. We want to prevent that from happening.”

Separately, Acting Assistant Secretary Joey Hood also made an unannounced visit to NE Syria, where he emphasized Washington’s commitment to “support all efforts toward a political resolution of the Syrian conflict.”

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