Advice for world leaders about to meet Bashar Assad: Don’t.

Eliot L. Engel & Dr. Muhammad Bakr Ghbeis

Later this year, a man who bombs, poisons, kidnaps, tortures, imprisons and gasses his own people will attend the COP28 United Nations Climate Summit in Dubai. This is just the latest step on the wrong-headed path to normalizing the brutal Assad regime of Syria.

Twelve years ago, the world’s largest annual climate gathering suspended Assad due to his record of atrocities and chemical weapons attacks on his own people. But now COP28’s Emirati hosts are allowing Syria’s re-entry — and we’re stuck watching a handful of key Arab leaders fawn over him.

Last month in Saudi Arabia, when the Arab League re-admitted Syria, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi smiled so much it looked like it hurt. Event host Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) grabbed the dictator and kissed him on the cheeks.

We have opposed normalization of relations with Assad for years, and this mockery of diplomacy stings. For more than half a century, the Assad family has brutally run the one of world’s oldest civilizations into the ground. Now his short-sighted neighbors are allowing him to reengage.

Some of these countries have argued it is about realpolitik. Assad still controls much of Syria, and with his military support from Moscow and Tehran, he is not going anywhere. But rather than standing up to the bully, his neighbors, refusing to confront him, now want to deal with Syria on the problems Assad has created across the region.

Those problems include horrid crimes like Assad’s illegal trade of Captagon, the vicious addictive amphetamine fueling the party scenes of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. According to counternarcotics officials, Captagon trafficking massively benefits Assad’s family.

Standing nearby Assad at COP28 might be his wife, Asma, whom international investigators say plays a leading role in plundering the wealth of Syria’s people. A former JPMorgan banker, Asma runs her husband’s covert economic council — a shadowy network of supposed charity NGOs accused of stealing much of the foreign charity and international aid entering Syria.

Smuggling remains as deadly as ever. Following this February’s devastating earthquake, which left ordinary Syrians in dire need of assistance, U.S. and Israeli intelligence reports noted that Iranians, particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, used humanitarian aid shipments as cover to sneak weapons into Syria. Why weapons? Iranian proxy groups in Syria are planning to continue their attacks on the small garrison of U.S. military personnel still stationed there as part of the anti-ISIS coalition.

But it’s not enough to counter only ISIS and Iranian militias in Syria. We have to up the pressure on the Assad regime itself. Fortunately, Congress has already taken a giant step in that direction.

Known as the Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act, this bill has moved through the House Foreign Affairs Committee quickly since an early May introduction by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), and has gained strong bipartisan support along the way. A companion bill in the Senate is in the works.

“Countries choosing to normalize with (the) unrepentant mass murderer and drug trafficker, Bashar al-Assad, are headed down the wrong path,” Wilson said.

The legislation has multiple goals, including expanding the 2019 Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which authorizes sanctions on those conducting business with the Syrian government. On the Syrian side, it targets all members of parliament, senior members of the ruling Baath Party and those responsible for diverting international humanitarian aid, including one of Asma’s main charities, the Syria Trust for Development.

Some U.S.-based analysts have questioned whether the bill could impede humanitarian aid efforts. It does not. The Caesar Act specifically protects humanitarian assistance while the new bill would punish those responsible for diverting aid and furthering the Syrian people’s suffering.

The fight is bitter and continues, but we find comfort in allies who stand up, like Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has also recently imposed sanctions on Assad’s myriad of criminals. Zelensky is fighting Russian President and dictator Vladimir Putin, who has backed Assad for years.

Last year’s COP summit in Sharm el-Sheikh saw more than 100 heads of state attend. Some were the dictators we all know. With Assad at this year’s gathering, something is deeply wrong with our times. 

Leaders from the United States and other democracies around the world have a chance to shun Assad if they see him wandering the aisles of COP28. Do it! It’s time to show the world that the Syrian dictator should not be allowed to stand alongside the international community.

Eliot L. Engel is the former chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Dr. Muhammad Bakr Ghbeis is a Syrian-American cardiac critical care physician and instructor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. He is president of Citizens for a Secure and Safe America.