Washington adopts disassociation policy towards political fluctuations neighboring Syria 

The Jordanian King Abdullah II and United States President Joe Biden - 2021 (CNN)

The Jordanian King Abdullah II and United States President Joe Biden - 2021 (CNN)


Enab Baladi – Diana Rahima

In a climate of political changes, the Syrian regime has been trying to seize any opportunity that would help it control regional files amid shy positions from the United States (US).

The US position towards the regime has shifted considerably in the last decade. After the Syrian uprising, the US condemned the regime’s practices against the Syrian people and imposed economic sanctions on the regime and anyone dealing with it. 

However, the US policy became milder, facilitating dealings between the regime and its neighboring countries, chiefly Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt, as part of the Egyptian gas transportation deal to Lebanon through Jordan and Syria.

Still, the biggest policy turnover for the US towards the regime came with news of exceptions of the US-established Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, also known as the Caesar Act, against the Syrian regime.  

How and when the Caesar Act sanctions’ easing proposal was first introduced?

The question of easing the Caesar Act’s sanctions on the regime was first raised during a confirmation hearing for the appointment of US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Barbara Leaf, on 18 September, chaired by Senator Robert Menendez of the Democratic Party.

In the hearing, US Senator Chris Van Hollen asked Leaf about the situation in Lebanon and the energy plan, transporting gas from Egypt and Jordan through Syria to Lebanon, as proposed by the US Ambassador to Lebanon, Dorothy Shea.

Hollen questioned whether Shea’s plan was compliant with the Caesar Act or whether a waiver would be required.   

For her part, Leaf responded that “The US State Department is looking at this project carefully within the framework of US laws and sanctions policy. The project shows some promise, and the State Department will consult thoroughly with the Treasury on the way forward, but it certainly offers the prospect of a cheaper, cleaner, and defensible solution, a short-term fix to what is a larger terrible problem in Lebanon.” 

Menendez commented on Leaf’s statement saying, “In this particular case for these particular circumstances, if the US State Department makes the determination that the Caesar sanctions are the only impediment towards an agreement for energy flow into Lebanon, I will ask them to come to me, because I think it is important to find a way forward.”

Menendez’s statement marks a shift in his vision of the situation in Syria. He was one of the most vocal advocates of holding the Syrian regime accountable. In fact, he chaired the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee last March to pass the Syrian Regime Accountability Act in conjunction with the Syrian revolution’s tenth anniversary.

After reviewing the Caesar Act’s provisions by lawyers and legal and economic experts, it turned out that the US State Department’s waiver is not in line with the Caesar Act, as it would benefit the regime economically and politically. 

The US State Department’s comment

Enab Baladi sent an email to the US State Department asking about the possibility of amendments to the Caesar Act’s provisions to be in line with political variables and Syria’s neighboring countries’ interests. The US State Department replied, “The US government supports efforts to find creative, transparent, and sustainable energy solutions that will address Lebanon’s acute energy and fuel shortages. The lack of fuel and power is now threatening the delivery of critical services, such as health care and water.”

It added, “There are still many questions about how these potential deals might work, but there appear to be potential arrangements that could provide a regional solution to a very urgent problem in Lebanon and could help the Lebanese people as they suffer through this power crisis.”

“The bi-partisan supported the Caesar Act Sanctions, as well as other sanctions authorities, as they are an important tool to press for accountability against the Assad regime, and We will continue to exercise these tools,” the US State Department added.

“The extremely dire humanitarian crisis in Syria is a direct result of the Assad regime’s blocking of life-saving assistance, systemic corruption, and economic mismanagement,” according to the US State Department.

 It also pointed out that the “US sanctions do not target humanitarian-related trade, assistance, or activities. Instead, the sanctions programs are designed to constrain the ability of bad actors to take advantage of our financial system or threaten the United States, our allies and partners, and civilians.”

Conflicting US positions on the Syrian file

The US has adopted a policy of disassociation regarding the re-floating of the regime in the Arab world.

Recently, the Arab countries’ relations with the regime have witnessed significant development, particularly in Jordan.

Syrian-Jordanian relations have evolved on the political and economic levels. On 19 September, the Syrian Minister of Defense, Ali Abdullah Ayoub, visited the Jordanian capital Amman and met with the Jordanian Chief of Staff in a first-of-a-kind visit since 2011.

The revival of relations between the two countries involved economic agreements, with the Jordanian government announcing its resumption of commercial flights between Damascus and Amman.

On 28 September, the US State Principal Deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter said that the US welcomes the commercial flights’ resumption decision between Syria and Jordan, the US channel al-Hurra reported. Hours later, Porter backed out on the welcoming announcement. 

On 29 September, a US State Department spokesperson stated to Reuters that the US has no plans to “normalize or upgrade” diplomatic relations with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and also does not encourage others to do so. 

The statement came in response to Reuters questions on whether Washington was encouraging and supporting a rapprochement between Jordan and Syria.

The State Department spokesperson’s comment contradicts Porter’s, indicating conflicting positions in the US foreign policy on the Syrian file.

The hard and soft US power in Syria

The Washington-based political activist Mohammed Ghanem told Enab Baladi that the US administration has not yet designed a specific policy towards the Syrian file, but there are consistent pillars that have not yet changed, namely sanctions.

According to Ghanem, the US Administration went easy on the Russians during negotiations for extending the authorization of cross-border humanitarian aid delivery to Syria, as the Russians were rewarded for not vetoing through the mandate of cross-line assistance delivery. 

Today, the US administration is not tightening or activating penalties on the regime, which is a characteristic attributed to the Democratic Party that does not opt for sanctions that much, Ghanem said. 

He added, The Syrian opposition should practice diplomacy with Western countries to tighten the noose on the regime; but unfortunately, the opposition ceased to have any weight on the international level after becoming subject to influential actors in the Syrian file.

The Democratic Party’s internal divisions on foreign policy

Former US ambassador to Syria and senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, Robert Ford, wrote that the Democratic Party’s internal division about foreign policy is growing.

On 24 September, Democratic US Congressman Jamal Bowman failed to pass an amendment to his proposed law prohibiting the US military presence in Syria.

Nevertheless, the amendment which demanded the prohibition of American troops in Syria and included voting on more than ten amendments to the annual Defense Policy Bill was rejected by the US Congress. 

After seven years of US troops presence in Syria, the US Congress has still not voted to approve military intervention there, nor has any of the former US presidents explained the strategy or plan for the US military forces in Syria, Ford added.

Bowman’s proposal won 120 approval from Democratic Party representatives. Only 98 Democrats voted against it, exposing the US policy nuances towards Syria.

Ford added that the debate inside the Democratic Party about Biden’s foreign policy on Palestine, and human rights, show the left-wing of the party more and more critical of Biden and the Democratic party leadership on foreign policy issues.

The Democratic Party leaders and Biden’s closest allies voted against Bowman’s proposal, but most Democratic representatives rejected the leadership’s position, indicating that the Democratic Party support for the Syria mission is not strong, Ford said.

An Arab-American axis against Iran

Former Syrian diplomat Bassam Barbandi told Enab Baladi that both Jordan and Egypt, two countries with pressing economic problems, present themselves before the US administration as two forces able to establish an Arab axis, not necessarily strong, but not weak either. This axis is promoted as having good prospects to help the US policy in the Middle East and be supported back, thus benefiting all sides and limiting Iran’s influence in the region.

According to Barbandi, the US Administration welcomes the idea of Arab States taking the initiative to achieve economic benefits and provide political support in the greater Middle East understandings.

Implementing the Egyptian gas pipeline project requires engagement with the Syrian regime in two respects; the first is related to technical and legal matters for the extension and maintenance of gas pipelines. The second is the mutual coordination with other countries within the framework of dealings with the regime despite sanctions and making concessions.

In political terms, concerns about Iran’s growing influence are pushing the US towards alleviating sanctions on the Syrian regime, even though Iran is not the only actor having a say in the Syrian file.


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