Washington eases sanctions on Syria ahead of Biden-Putin summit in Geneva

Russian President Vladimir Putin, the head of the Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad, and United States President Joe Biden (edited by Enab Baladi)

Russian President Vladimir Putin, the head of the Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad, and United States President Joe Biden (edited by Enab Baladi)

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Enab Baladi – Diana Rahima

The United States (US) Administration has been adopting a vague and divided policy in dealing with the Syrian file. It condemned the crimes of the Syrian regime and its president, Bashar al-Assad, and denounced the Syrian presidential elections as neither “free nor fair.” However, it did not take any firm stand that would resolve the politically and militarily complex file of Syria. 

The divide is particularly evident in the enforcement of sanctions. The Biden administration, which started nearly six months ago, has not imposed sanctions under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act (CSCPA), unlike the former Trump administration, which ended its term with a set of focused sanctions targeting the Syrian regime and its supporters.

The policy, however, might transpire into a clearer approach during the upcoming summit between the US and Russia’s presidents who have the Syrian file scheduled in their discussions.

US congressmen’s disregard for sanctions and focus on humanitarian aid delivery 

On 7 June, a group of chairmen of the US Senate and House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committees from the Democratic and Republican parties sent a letter to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to reaffirm the full applicability of the Caesar Act on the Syrian regime and pressure Russia to open crossings for aid deliveries in Syria.

The Washington-based political adviser Mohammed Ghanem told Enab Baladi that the democrats have no confidence in the sanctions imposed on the Syrian regime, and there is much debate about them. The issue of whether or not to impose sanctions against the Syrian government has been causing real controversy amid attempts to thwart them. The US officials are battling this issue, and it is still early to pinpoint the US policy towards the sanctions. 

The US Administration has not yet paid due attention to the Syrian file, and its policy in this regard has not yet been defined, according to Ghanem. Instead, the US is currently focusing on the humanitarian dimension of cross-border delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Ghanem said that the democrats are disinclined to use sanctions against the regime, particularly that an extreme wing within the far-left Democratic Party represented by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), an American politician and activist serving as the US Representative for New York’s 14th congressional district, is against sanctions. Politicians such as AOC are a strong voice in the US, and they launch initiatives to lift sanctions on Iran.

Ghanem’s views are in line with Washington’s official position. On 6 June, the US Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations (UN), Jeffrey Prescott, said that the UN Security Council’s action plan for the coming days would focus on adding additional crossings and expanding the delivery of humanitarian aid to Syria, not just on renewing aid delivery through the only authorized passage point, the Bab al-Hawa crossing.

Prescott added that what the US Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, saw on her three-day visit to the Turkish-Syrian border early this month underlined the importance of cross-border assistance to meet the needs of Syrians which increased 20 percent more than last year. 

Prescott described the Bab al-Hawa crossing as a “lifeline for millions of Syrians,” through which life-saving humanitarian aid to millions of Syrians is delivered. He added that the UN would remain focused on the issue of cross-border assistance until everyone understands the stakes of closing the final humanitarian border crossing, which is a matter of life or death to Syrians.

The US Department of State issued a statement on 2 June, which mentioned that the US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield made a visit to the Syrian-Turkish border. 

Greenfield warned of the cruelty of closing the final humanitarian border crossing into Syria, which she described as “incalculable” as many Syrians would die. She reiterated the call for the UN Security Council to renew the authorization to deliver humanitarian assistance through the Bab al-Hawa crossing. 

Lifting of sanctions 

On 10 June, the US Treasury removed two companies owned by Syrian businessman Samer Fawz, who is known for his close ties with the regime, from its sanctions lists, and added new personal information about Samer’s two brothers Amer and Hussein Fawz, who are included in previous sanctions.

The lifting of sanctions of Fawz’s two companies sparked controversy about the seriousness of the US foreign policy with the Syrian regime. Meanwhile, a source from the US Department of State pointed out that the US Treasury did not cancel sanctions targeting the regime or its associates, the two companies were dissolved by Samer Fawz, and therefore they were removed from the US sanctions lists. 

Over the past years, the US has worked on restricting the activity of Syrian businessmen by imposing sanctions on them for financially supporting the Syrian regime.

Samer Fawz was an obscure businessman before 2011. But, in recent years, his star rose amid accusations of profiteering from war crimes and influential Syrian figures. 

In 2019, the US Department of State imposed sanctions on all companies and assets owned by Samer Fawz, primarily Aman Holding company, for funding more than ten projects supporting the Syrian regime. 

Caesar Act still in force against Syrian regime

According to a press briefing Enab Baladi obtained via email on 27 May, a Senior State Department Official discussed several topics related to the course of the US policy towards Syria, including the application of the US Caesar sanctions.

When asked if the US intends to ease the Caesar sanctions, the Senior State Department Official said, “the Caesar Act was passed by an overwhelming majority of the American Congress. So the administration is going to implement the law. The law 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 afterward, after the conflict.”

He added, “The law is going to remain unless the Congress chooses to repeal it, and with overwhelming bipartisan support for the law’s original passage, the repeal of the law does not look likely anytime soon.”

 Biden-Putin summit: A game-changer in Syria?

Former Syrian diplomat Bassam Barabandi told Enab Baladi that the summit between US President Joe Biden and Russia’s Vladimir Putin would be limited to discussing the opening of crossings to deliver cross-border humanitarian aid to Syria. Their meeting will not likely discuss the politics of the Syrian file, and the US might offer a deal to Russia as part of the negotiations between the two sides. On the other hand, if Russia refuses the deal, the US will adopt a more strict approach with Russia with regard to the Syrian file. So, it is hard to predict where things are going with the negotiations ahead.

Biden and Putin will meet on 16 June in Geneva, amid sharp disagreements over interference in Syrian presidential election, cyberattacks, human rights violations, Ukraine, and the issue of Syrian crossings’ closure to end cross-border aid delivery.

On 11 June, the Washington Post newspaper published, “the Syria part of the meeting represents a key test for both sides, the US and Russia. How the US and Russia deal with the Syria issue clarifies not only what Putin’s stance is, but it will also reveal how committed the Biden administration is to elevating human rights and democracy as a priority in its foreign policy.”

The newspaper cited Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, saying that the summit between the two presidents is “a clarifying moment,” especially as the deadline for the UN session on the opening of border crossings is approaching. 

Katulis added that “Moscow’s position was that all humanitarian aid should flow through al-Assad’s regime, which is an absurd proposition considering that al-Assad is the one intentionally starving Idlib in the first place.”

According to the newspaper, “US officials believe that Moscow is looking for sanctions relief from Biden in exchange for reauthorizing the aid route, but that would amount to rewarding Putin for not starving civilians — a grotesque notion.”

“If Putin rebuffs Biden and refuses to allow humanitarian aid routes to continue, the US and its partners, including Turkey, would face an enormous challenge in working outside the UN system to deliver aid to Idlib,” the newspaper mentioned.

It added, “Biden’s actions on Syria in Geneva will also be a litmus test for how the United States will resist Russian and Chinese expansion in the region.”

On 4 June, Reuters reported that Putin praised Biden as an experienced politician and expected the Geneva summit to be held in a positive atmosphere. 

Putin said the meeting would be more about trying to chart a path to restore the battered US-Russia ties, which are strained by everything from Russia’s jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny to Ukraine to Syria, according to Reuters. 

For his part, Biden said that he would press Putin to respect human rights at the forthcoming Geneva summit.

In a press briefing on 9 June, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan confirmed that Syria was on the agenda for the summit, confirming the US positive position on humanitarian access while not going into the details to be discussed to give room to the talks preceding the Geneva summit.

American-Iranian nuclear deal’s link to the Syrian file

The US Administration’s disregard for the Syrian file lines up with the continuation of the American-Iranian nuclear deal talks in Vienna, amid analyses linking the Syrian issue to the nuclear deal negotiations, particularly that the US Administration recognizes the interdependence of Iranian interests in Syria with the paralyzation of the Syrian economy by sanctions.

Last March, more than 100 congressmen from the Democratic and Republican parties urged Biden’s administration to use its influence to pressure Iran, which has expanded its security and military influence in Syria.

The head of the Syrian Christians for Peace Association, Ayman Abdul Nour, told Enab Baladi that Syria is part of the Iranian file for some White House advisers. The Syrian opposition is seeking to be out of that equation to not be offered as part of Iran’s post-deal gains, as was the case in former US President Barack Obama’s period.

With the launch of the American-Iranian talks in Vienna, Iranian companies and officials were removed from the US sanctions list, but there is no correlation so far between the nuclear deal and the change in US policy towards the Syrian regime, according to Abdul Nour.

A study by the Atlantic Council entitled “Iran sanctions relief will continue funding the ongoing war in Syria,” mentioned that the sanctions imposed by the US on Iran in 2018 “have caused Iran’s foreign reserves to dwindle to as low as 4 billion USD—limiting the regime’s funding for its war machine.” 

However, “if the Biden administration were to ease sanctions, Tehran’s foreign reserves would swell to more than 100 billion USD, rapidly enriching an actor that has shown no hesitation to arm and fund the region’s worst elements, i.e. the Syrian regime,” the study read.

According to the study, “If the US returns to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) without extracting concessions from Iran, specifically on its murderous campaign in Syria, the death toll will only continue to grow. If there is a war to be stopped, it is the war Iran is already waging in Syria on behalf of al-Assad. Focusing only on the nuclear threat will not prevent war—it will fund it.”

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