Preventing Assad’s Normalization: A Moral Imperative for the U.S.

Eliot L. Engel & Dr. Muhammad Bakr Ghbeis

The Syrian leader’s crimes will forever be recalled alongside the world’s worst tyrannical butchers.

History has taught us that when a country’s leader is willing to commit genocide, no less against their own people, that the world must unite to wall them off. They must be removed, charged, tried, and convicted for their crimes against humanity.

The Syrian civil war has killed over 350,000 people and maimed thousands more—including in over 300 chemical weapons attacks, the vast majority of which were perpetrated by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. These are crimes against humanity, and Assad’s guilt will forever be recalled alongside the world’s worst tyrannical butchers.

Yet Assad denies he has chemical weapons and is not fully cooperating with international inspections. He denies his air force has ever dropped barrel bombs on densely populated areas. He denies the very existence of barrel bombs. He denies defenseless civilians have ever been deliberately targeted. For 10 years, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, established by the United Nations Human Rights Council, has reported in detail on the criminal depredations of Assad, as well as those of nonstate actors including the Islamic State and al Qaeda. Incredibly, Assad denies it all.

Now, the passage of time and the apparent shortness of memory are causing the international community to forget one of the most important rules in geopolitics: Never negotiate with terrorists. Having been propped up by Russia and Iran, Assad and his vicious regime are still in power. Despite the cruelty that Assad has continued to impose on the Syrian people, the region is beginning to bring him and his criminal gang back into the fold.

At a September 2021 meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry met his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad, for the first time since the Syrian uprising began 10 years earlier. Closing his eyes to the genocide of that decade, Shoukry said it was time “to restore Syria’s position in the Arab world.”

Jordan has reopened trade and reestablished ties with the Assad regime. And the United Arab Emirates has followed suit, sending its foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed, to meet with Assad this past November. Despite years of condemnation, urgent international meetings, and never-ending reports of the well-documented horrors committed by Assad’s regime, a sad message is emerging from the Levant: Kill your people, protect your regime, hide in a bunker—and in a handful of years, the world will let you out, fully laundered, cleaned, and pressed.

We cannot let this happen. We must not allow the Assad formula for political survival to become dictators’ standard response to protest and dissent. U.S. diplomats and lawmakers need to reach deep into their souls and recall our common humanity. They need to tell U.S. partners in Jordan, the UAE, and Egypt that a rapprochement with the Syrian regime is out of question.

The United States must also fully enforce the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act and impose penalties on violators. The Caesar Act was created to protect the Syrian people and preserve the integrity of the region. (One of the authors wrote the Caesar Act as well as the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act.) It would be a travesty to let its powerful message—that the United States must draw a clear line against the Assad regime—fall to the wayside.

In particular, the Caesar Act mandates sanctions on any activity that “significantly facilitates the maintenance or expansion of the Government of Syria’s domestic production of natural gas, petroleum, or petroleum products.” This is important because plans to bring natural gas to Lebanon envision Egyptian gas transiting via Syrian pipelines—some of which are yet to be built. If those gas deliveries facilitate the maintenance or expansion of Syria’s own natural gas or oil production, it seems clear that the new construction or maintenance of older infrastructure, regardless of the worthy purpose of helping Lebanon’s citizens, would violate the Caesar Act.

The Biden administration must scrupulously enforce the law and oppose any developments, which would promote Assad’s energy industry. Rather, it should seek alternatives, including maritime shipments and renewable sources, to provide energy to Lebanon.

The Biden administration has also expressed its interest in accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity around the world. Now is time to animate those lofty goals and advance efforts to bring Assad to justice. The Biden administration should bring all of its diplomatic might to bear at the U.N. and in other forums to expose Assad’s brutality so his crimes do not slip through the cracks.

As a critical step, the U.S. Senate needs to confirm President Joe Biden’s nominee for ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice, Beth Van Schaack. Once confirmed, she should immediately make accountability for Assad and his entourage a major priority of her office. As envisioned in the Caesar Act, her team should coordinate with the U.S. Justice Department and other agencies to collect and compile evidence, preserve the chain of custody, and consult actively with legal experts with experience in war crimes prosecution. As soon as charges can be brought, red notices must be filed with Interpol for Assad and his henchmen.

The good news is one court just demonstrated that bringing Assad and his lieutenants to justice is still possible. Based on the universal jurisdiction principle of international law, a court in Germany convicted a former colonel in one of Assad’s intelligence services of war crimes, in one of the world’s first criminal trials on atrocities in Syria.

The United States cannot and should not try to impose some kind of military solution to the Syrian crisis. But the Biden administration is right to keep military forces in northeastern Syria to prevent the resurrection of the Islamic State. Those troops’ presence reminds the world of U.S. interests, provides a window on the struggle facing the Syrian people, and fosters coordination with anti-Assad forces.

Although the Biden administration says it has no plans to “normalize or upgrade” diplomatic relations with the Assad regime and does not encourage others to do so, there are more tangible actions it could take, such as clearly and starkly briefing countries in the region about penalties they could face under Caesar or other sanctions.

Without U.S. leadership to align the international moral compass in Syria, it is hard to see how countries in the region and around the world will continue to stand firm against this dictator. We are particularly pleased with a recent bipartisan letter to Biden by the chairman and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee urging restoration of U.S. leadership in Syria. The letter expresses concern about Arab countries expanding ties with Damascus and cautions the Biden administration: “Tacit approval of formal diplomatic engagement with the Syrian regime sets a dangerous precedent for authoritarians who seek to commit similar crimes against humanity.”

The political transition in Syria to a government that represents its own people and maintains peace and stability with its neighbors needs to be the focus of U.S. foreign policy on Syria. Without prioritizing this objective, Syria will continue to bleed agony on one hand and breed terrorism on the other.

Arab partners of the United States should not crawl back to Assad because they falsely perceive American apathy on the issue of political transition in Syria. They cannot be allowed to sense that Washington is reconciling itself to Moscow’s self-serving view that Assad, sitting atop a smoking ruin propped up by Russia and Iran, has won the struggle for Syria.

As it focuses on the increasing challenge from China, the global COVID-19 pandemic, and climate change, the Biden administration should be careful to avoid suggesting that it is indifferent toward the future of Syria, as it could unintentionally encourage others to accept the unacceptable. Rather, it should intensify pressure and applaud the strong stance against his return from Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

A few years have passed since Assad used chemical weapons against his own people and committed war crimes, but the memories are still fresh in the minds of Syrian families and friends of the victims, including several relatives of one of the writers of this piece. Tens of thousands of Syrians remain in the regime’s prisons, undergoing torture, starvation, disease, and rape. The time has come to refresh our own memories and demand justice for the butcher from Damascus. There is no place for him or his henchmen among civilized people.