US floats sanctions warning as Arab isolation of Syria nears end

“We have also made clear that the core architecture of our sanctions remains firmly in place,” a White House National Security Council official told Al Arabiya English.

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Saudi Arabia became the latest Gulf country to take a step toward normalizing ties with the Syrian regime on Tuesday after Bashar al-Assad’s top diplomat visited Jeddah. But Washington has warned that its sanctions against the Assad regime remain in place.

Saudi Arabia’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Walid Elkhereiji, welcomed Faisal Mekdad upon his arrival. According to the Saudi Press Agency (SPA), Mekdad was invited by Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan ahead of a Friday meeting to discuss the war in Syria, allowing for the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland, and ensuring humanitarian aid gets to needed areas of the country.

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A State Department spokesperson said states should receive “tangible outcomes” that improve the humanitarian and security situation for Syrians while also pushing for regime cooperation in the political process as stated in UN resolutions.

“Our position is clear: We will not normalize relations with the Assad regime absent real progress towards a political solution to the underlying conflict,” a National Security Council (NSC) official told Al Arabiya English.

The US has stressed to Arab countries engaging with the Syrian regime that credible steps to improve Syrians’ humanitarian and security situation should be front and center in any engagement, the NSC spokesperson said.

“We have also made clear that the core architecture of our sanctions remains firmly in place,” the official added.

Riyadh is the latest in a string of Arab and Gulf nations to reopen dialogue with the Syrian government, responsible for hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and using chemical weapons against its people.

Last week, French courts charged three senior advisors to Assad with complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Despite US and European opposition to normalization with the Assad regime absent a political solution to the yearslong war, Arab countries have seen no progress with the current policy toward Syria.

During a Tuesday call with the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Saudi Arabia’s top diplomat said Riyadh was committed to preserving Syria’s unity, security and “Arab affiliation.”

Analysts and observers have said that Arab countries want to decrease Syria’s reliance on and close ties with Iran by lifting a decade-old isolation from the Arab League.

Sanctions waivers

But critics of the Biden administration’s policy toward Syria have pinned the blame on an easing of sanctions against Assad and his cronies, including the most recent sanctions waiver by the US meant to facilitate badly needed humanitarian aid to areas impacted by devastating earthquakes in February.

The waiver, General License 23, only authorizes transactions related to providing emergency earthquake relief to those in need, the State Department official told Al Arabiya English. “It does not waive any sanctions or represent an easing of US sanctions and is not intended to support significant construction or engineering services benefitting sanctioned entities in Syria,” they said.

A convoy of trucks carrying aid from UN World Food Programme (WFP), following a deadly earthquake, enters Bab al-Hawa crossing, Syria, on February 20, 2023. (Reuters)
A convoy of trucks carrying aid from UN World Food Programme (WFP), following a deadly earthquake, enters Bab al-Hawa crossing, Syria, on February 20, 2023. (Reuters)

The earthquake destroyed large swathes of territory in northeastern Syria, which is not under the Syrian government’s control. However, a small part of the government-held territory in Aleppo was hit hard. Assad regime officials and their allies, including Iran-backed Hezbollah supporters, had claimed that American sanctions were preventing aid from getting to destroyed areas.

Asked about the Assad regime siphoning off international and regional humanitarian aid, the State Department official said the US government retains tools to monitor and respond to the diversion or abuse of these sanctions waivers.

But the spokesperson cautioned, “We also continue to remind countries that our Syria sanctions remain in force.”

The top Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees have repeatedly voiced concern over the US president’s Syria policy. “Tacit approval of formal diplomatic engagement with the Syrian regime sets a dangerous precedent for authoritarians who seek to commit similar crimes against humanity,” a letter from the four lawmakers to Biden read last year.

And just last month, the same four leading members of Congress sent another letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellen. “We take note of the disappointingly slow pace of sanctions under the Caesar Act and believe more can be done to ensure that perpetrators of atrocities in Syria face consequences for their actions,” they said.

A group of former senior State Department officials, including the former head of the US Central Command [CENTCOM], also penned a letter to Biden and Blinken criticizing their current Syria policy.

The State Department official said it was continuing to hold the Assad regime accountable with Syria-related sanctions in “full force,” pointing to March 28th sanctions under the Caesar Act.

The US designated six individuals, Lebanese and Syrian, for facilitating the production and export of illicit drugs in Syria and Lebanon. This marked the first time the Biden administration issued sanctions under the Caesar Act authority, legislation which sailed through Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2019.

Congressional staffers and aides have said that the new Republican-led House will double down and renew demands for accountability and sanctions against the Assad regime, regardless of any normalization efforts between US allies in the region and the Syrian government.

Read more: State Department hits back at claims that sanctions are blocking Syria earthquake aid

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