By Countercurrents Collective
A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers has introduced a bill to oppose the normalization of relations between Syria and other nations. The Arab League reinstated the country this month, while Saudi Arabia announced the reopening of diplomatic channels with Damascus after ten years.
Media reports said:
The Assad Anti-Normalization Act threatens “governments considering normalization with the Assad regime” with severe consequences, according to a press release by the office of U.S. Representative Joe Wilson, the primary sponsor of the bill.
The government of Syrian President Bashar Assad faced mass protests and an armed uprising over a decade ago. The U.S. and its allies accused Damascus of crimes against its people and backed anti-government forces by sending weapons to militant groups, among other measures. Some of the arms ended up in the hands of outright jihadists.
The Syrian government turned the tide of the conflict against the militant groups – which had taken over large parts of Syrian territory – with the help of Russia and Iran, and is now in control of most parts of the country. The U.S. now has a military base in the east, in spite of objections from Damascus, and supports the Kurdish forces which hold fertile and oil-rich regions of the country.
After the opposition’s failure to topple Assad, Washington introduced severe economic sanctions, which critics say significantly undermine Syria’s attempts at reconstruction. The new legislation seeks to bolster the sanctions. Among other things, it targets foreign airports receiving Syrian planes, seeks to crack down on first lady Asma Assad’s charity, and subjects grants of $50,000 or more to Syria from nations in the region to sanctions review.
“The United States must use all of our leverage to stop normalization with Assad,” U.S. Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul said of the new bill, which he co-sponsored. It mandates “further sanctions against any form of investment in territory under control of the Assad regime, as we remain committed to ensuring the Syrian people receive justice.”
The bill also reacts to the Arab League’s reengagement with Syria by instructing the U.S. Department of State to monitor and report to the Congress all diplomatic contacts between Damascus and certain states. The list includes Türkiye, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and others. The U.S. government would be required to implement a strategy to counter Syria rapprochement for at least five years under the proposed law.
The lawmakers also want to be updated on what they have termed the “manipulation of the UN” by Damascus, referring to conditions under which UN humanitarian aid programs helping Syrians operate.
A Reuters report said:
A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers introduced a bill on Thursday intended to bar the U.S. government from recognizing Bashar al-Assad as Syria’s president and enhance Washington’s ability to impose sanctions in a warning to other countries normalizing relations with Assad.
The bill, first reported by Reuters, would prohibit the U.S. federal government from recognizing or normalizing relations with any government in Syria led by Assad, who is under U.S. sanctions, and expands on the Caesar Act, a U.S. law that imposed a tough round of sanctions on Syria in 2020.
The bill comes after Arab states turned the page on years of confrontation with Assad on Sunday by letting Syria back into the Arab League, a milestone in his regional rehabilitation even as the West continues to shun him after years of civil war.
Regional countries, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others, had for years supported anti-Assad rebels, but Syria’s army – backed by Iran, Russia and allied paramilitary groups – regained most of the country. The icy ties with Assad began to thaw more quickly after devastating earthquakes in Syria and Turkey in February.
The U.S. has said it will not normalize ties with Assad, and its sanctions remain in full effect.
“Countries choosing to normalize with (the) unrepentant mass murderer and drug trafficker, Bashar al-Assad, are headed down the wrong path,” U.S. Representative Joe Wilson, the chair of the Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, said in a statement.
The bill was introduced by Wilson alongside House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul and co-chairs of the Free, Democratic and Stable Syria Caucus, Republican French Hill and Democrat Brendan Boyle; among others.
The legislation is a warning to Turkey and Arab countries that if they engage with Assad’s government, they could face severe consequences, a senior congressional staffer who worked on the bill told Reuters.
“The readmission of Syria to the Arab League really infuriated members and made clear the need to quickly act to send a signal,” the staffer said.
The staffer said the State Department was consulted in the drafting of the bill. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The bill’s provisions include a requirement for an annual strategy from the secretary of state for five years on countering normalization with Assad’s government, including a list of diplomatic meetings held between Syria’s government and Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and others.
The bill would also clarify the applicability of U.S. sanctions on Syrian Arab Airlines and another carrier, Cham Wings. Under the proposed bill, countries that allow the airlines to land would face sanctions against that airport, the staffer said.
If passed, the bill would also require a review of transactions, including donations over $50,000 in areas of Syria held by Assad’s government by anyone in Turkey, the UAE, Egypt and several other countries.
U.S., UK Oppose Syria’s Re-admission To Arab League
An AP report said on May 10, 2023:
The U.S. and Britain voiced dissatisfaction Tuesday with the weekend decision by the Arab League to re-instate Syria as a member.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said they opposed the move. But they also allowed it was up to the Arab League to determine its membership.
At the same time they said their countries would not normalized relations with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government unless it accepts and complies with a U.N. plan to restore peace to the country after a brutal 13-year civil war.
“We do not believe that Syria merits re-admission to the Arab League,” Blinken told reporters at a joint news conference with Cleverly at the State Department.
“It is a point we have made to all of our regional partners, but they have to make their own decisions,” Blinken said. “Our position is clear: We are not going to be in the business of normalizing relations with Assad and with that regime.”
Cleverly said the British government agreed with the U.S. stance.
“This is an occasion where the U.S. and the U.K. share very, very similar views,” he said. ”The U.K. is very uncomfortable with the re-admission of Syria in the Arab League, but as Secretary Blinken said, ultimately it is a decision for the membership of the Arab League.”
“The point that I have made is that there needs to be conditionality if they choose to take this course of action,” he said. “It needs to be conditional on some fundamental changes from Damascus and the Assad regime.”
Blinken and Cleverly said any solution to the crisis in Syria must be based on U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254, which was adopted in 2015 and lays out steps, including a permanent cease-fire, humanitarian assistance and progress toward free and fair elections, measures the Arab League also backs.
“I think the Arab perspective as articulated through the Arab League is that they believe they can pursue these objectives through more direct engagement,” Blinken said. “We may have a different perspective when it comes to that, but the objectives that we have I think are the same.”
Both men said it was critical for Syria to never again become a haven for the Islamic State group, which occupied large portions of the country and neighboring Iraq before being largely driven out.
Syria was reinstated in the 22-nation Arab League on Sunday after a 12-year suspension. It was a symbolic victory for Assad, who can join the group’s May 19 summit, though Western sanctions will continue to block reconstruction funds to the war-battered country.
Türkiye And Syria Planning Roadmap To Rebuild Ties
Another media report said:
Türkiye, Syria, Iran and Russia have agreed to develop a roadmap for rebuilding ties between Ankara and Damascus, which deteriorated during the Syrian conflict, the Russian Foreign Ministry has said.
The announcement was made after talks between the top diplomats of the four countries – Türkiye’s Mevlut Cavusoglu, Syria’s Faisal Mekdad, Iran’s Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and Russia’s Sergey Lavrov – which concluded in Moscow on Wednesday.
During the negotiations, the foreign ministers “discussed the issues of restoring Syrian-Turkish interstate relations in various aspects in a substantive and frank manner,” the ministry said in a statement.
“The participants also agreed to instruct their deputy foreign ministers to prepare a roadmap for advancing relations between Turkiye and Syria in coordination with the defense ministries and special services of the four countries,” it added.
All sides stressed their commitment to preserving the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and agreed to continue contacts in bilateral and quadruple formats, according to Moscow.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry confirmed the accounts by Moscow and Ankara in its statement. Damascus added that the sides also stressed the need to increase international assistance to Syria for the reconstruction of the country after a battle against international terrorism that lasted over a decade.
In December, Moscow hosted the first talks in 11 years between the defense ministers of Türkiye and Syria.
According to a report from Syrian newspaper Al-Watan, during that meeting Ankara agreed to withdraw its troops from northern Syria.
However, Turkish forces still remain in Idlib Province – the last area remaining under control of militants in the country, with Cavusoglu saying last month they are needed there “to prevent threats against [Türkiye], but also to block efforts to break up Syria.”
Relations between Ankara and Damascus deteriorated after the outbreak of the conflict in Syria in 2011, and saw Türkiye join Western calls for President Bashar Assad to be removed from power, supported by the Syrian National Army and some other anti-government groups.
However, over the past few years the Syrian authorities, helped by their Russian and Iranian allies, were able to restore control over most of the country’s territory, defeating, among others, Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) and other terrorist groups. Ankara’s stance towards Damascus has also shifted recently as it started looking for ways to rebuild ties with its neighbor. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in January that he was ready to meet with Assad after their respective diplomats do the preparatory work, in order “to establish peace and stability in the region.”
Last week, Syria was reinstated as a member of the Arab League.
Syria has also agreed to resume diplomatic relations with another major regional player, Saudi Arabia.
Earlier media reports said:
The Arab League agreed Sunday to reinstate Syria, ending a 12-year suspension and taking another step toward bringing Syrian President Bashar Assad, a long-time regional pariah, back into the fold.
Some influential league members remain opposed to reinstating Syria, chief among them Qatar, which did not send its foreign minister to Sunday’s gathering. Thirteen out of the league’s 22 member states sent their foreign ministers to the meeting in Cairo.
The decision represented a victory for Damascus, albeit a largely symbolic one. Given that Western sanctions against Assad’s government remain in place, the return to the Arab League is not expected to lead to a quick release of reconstruction funds in the war-battered country.
Syria’s membership in the Arab League was suspended early on during the country’s 2011 uprising against Assad’s rule that was met by a violent crackdown and quickly turned into a civil war. The conflict has killed nearly a half million people since March 2011 and displaced half of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million.
Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in a televised statement that the decision to return Syria to the organization, which will allow Assad to take part in the group’s upcoming May 19 summit, is part of a gradual process of resolving the conflict.
Aboul Gheit also said restoring Syria’s membership in the organization does not mean all Arab countries have normalized with Damascus.
“These are sovereign decisions for each state individually,” he said.
Syrian Prime Minister Hussein Arnous claimed Sunday that Syria had been the victim of “misinformation and distortion campaigns launched by our enemies” for 12 years. He said Sunday’s consultations reflected the “prestigious position” Syria holds regionally and internationally.
A spokesperson for Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement published by state media that normalization with Syria should be tied to a political solution to the conflict but that it “always seeks to support what will achieve an Arab consensus and will not be an obstacle to that.”
Arab rapprochement with Damascus accelerated after a deadly Feb. 6 earthquake that shattered parts of the war-torn country. One of the countries pushing normalization is Saudi Arabia, which once backed opposition groups trying to overthrow Assad.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Samer Shoukry said before Sunday’s meeting that only an Arab-led “political solution without foreign dictates” can end the ongoing conflict. “The different stages of the Syrian crisis proved that it has no military solution, and that there is no victor nor defeated in this conflict,” he said.
Neighbors of Syria that hosted large refugee populations took steps towards reopening diplomatic links with Damascus. Meanwhile, two Gulf monarchies, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, reestablished ties.
The Feb. 6 earthquake that rocked Turkey and Syria was a catalyst for further normalization across the Arab world. China helped to broker a recent rapprochement between arch-rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, which had backed opposing sides in the Syrian conflict.
Jordan last week hosted regional talks that included envoys from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, and Syria. They agreed on a framework, dubbed the “Jordanian initiative,” that would slowly bring Damascus back into the Arab fold. Amman’s top diplomat said the meeting was the “beginning of an Arab-led political path” for a solution to the crisis.
Saudi King Invites Assad To Attend Arab League Summit
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz has invited Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to attend an Arab League summit in the Gulf country on May 19, Syrian state media reported on Wednesday.
The invitation is a powerful signal that the regional isolation of Assad and his war-battered country is ending.
Regional countries – including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others – had for years supported anti-Assad rebels but Syria’s army, backed by Iran, Russia and allied paramilitary groups, regained most of the country.
Bashar al-Assad received an invitation to next week’s Arab summit in Saudi Arabia.
Assad received an invitation from Saudi King Salman “to participate in the 32nd Arab League summit which will be held in Jeddah on May 19”, the Syrian presidency said.
Assad said the summit “will enhance joint Arab action to achieve the aspirations of the Arab peoples,” it said in a statement.
Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Jordan, Nayef bin Bandar al-Sudairi, delivered the invitation, according to Saudi state news agency SPA.
He conveyed the King and his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “wishes to the brotherly government and people of Syria for security and stability,” SPA said.
The last Arab League summit Assad attended was in 2010 in Libya.
The invitation comes a day after Riyadh and Damascus announced that work would resume at their respective diplomatic missions in Syria and Saudi Arabia, after more than a decade of severed relations.
A decision in March by former arch-rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, a close ally of Damascus, to resume ties also shifted the political landscape.
In April, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan met with Assad in Damascus on the first such visit since the war broke out.
Regional capitals have gradually been warming to Assad as he has held onto power and clawed back lost territory with crucial support from Iran and Russia.
In 2018, the United Arab Emirates re-established ties with Syria and has been leading the recent charge to reintegrate Damascus into the Arab fold.
The fate of millions of Syrian refugees — many of them living in neighboring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon — are among some states’ main concerns.
Several Arab countries are also seeking increased security co-operation with Syria.
Assad hopes normalization with wealthy Gulf states can bring economic relief and money for reconstruction.
Analysts say Western sanctions on Syria are likely to continue to deter investment.
15 May 2023