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The US has given the green light to normalisation with Syria

October 7, 2021 at 2:53 pm

People walk past billboards depicting Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus, on 24 May 2021 [LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images]

Last Wednesday, Reuters reported a spokesperson of the US State Department claiming that it has no plans to “normalise or upgrade” diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad. It was also claimed that Washington does not want to encourage others to do so.

This was, said the spokesperson, because of the “atrocities inflicted by the Assad regime on the Syrian people… Assad has regained no legitimacy in our eyes, and there is no question of the US normalising relations with his government at this time.”

We can assume from this that if such atrocities come to an end, so too might Assad’s estrangement from America. Other countries are not so coy, though. A number have already re-established relations with Damascus, including Sudan, the UAE, Bahrain, Hungary, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Bulgaria, Greece, Cyprus and Austria. All of them are allies of the US and it is surely inconceivable that they would have made such a move without a green light from the White House.

James Jeffrey, the American special representative for Syria under former President Donald Trump, said two months ago that the US under Joe Biden is keeping silent regarding the ongoing moves to integrate the Assad regime into the international system. “What we are not doing now is discouraging the Emiratis and others from doing these openings [of embassies] to Assad.”

Moreover, senior Jordanian, Egyptian and Lebanese officials have recently met with their Syrian counterparts in Damascus and discussed the revival of the Arab Gas Pipeline project. Apparently they don’t fear US sanctions imposed by the Caesar Act on any country engaged in any meaningful dealings with Syria.

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According to Jeffrey — who is still a US official — the Arabs were reassured that the US will never sanction them if they deal with Syria or work to bring it back into the Arab League. This assurance was clear from the tacit approval signified by the silence of the Biden administration. “To some degree, they’ve given up because nobody in Washington is pressuring them to keep Assad out of the Arab League, keep the diplomatic and economic pressure on him,” he explained.

At the same time, the US Ambassador in Beirut, Dorothy Shea, told Al-Arabiya TV six weeks ago that Washington is working with Egypt and Jordan to improve the economic conditions in Lebanon. There was also a reference to the Arab Gas Pipeline, which will benefit Syria.

Shea said that she is in touch with the US Treasury Department and the White House, as well as the World Bank, to solve this tricky issue, bypassing the Caesar Act. “There is a will to make this happen. There will be some logistical things that need to happen too,” she added.

It is a fact that some countries in the region and further afield have never severed their ties with the Assad regime, despite its atrocities. The Maghreb countries, Iraq and Oman have never distanced themselves from Syria, which was also allowed to address the world through the UN General Assembly, where its officials meet their counterparts from across the globe.

Maher Sharafiddine, a Syrian journalist living in exile, told Al Jazeera TV on Tuesday that the ongoing wave to reintegrate Syria into the Arab and international communities was given the go ahead by the US. Speaking from Detroit, he noted, for example, that the Arabs who maintained or re-established their ties with the Syrian regime are all US allies.

“Washington’s reticent policy towards the Syrian regime, even when the latter deployed chemical weapons, convinced the Arab world that the US had no desire to topple Assad despite its initial mobilisation against him,” Professor of Middle East Studies at the American University in Paris, Ziyad Majid, told Al Jazeera Centre for Studies in Doha. He added that the Western and Arab governments tolerated Russia’s rescue of the regime through the Astana process. “This paved the way for the resumption of contact with Damascus by some Arab states, spurred on by the Kremlin.”

Taking all of this into account, why should we believe that the US has been working to topple the Syrian dictator? Because of his appalling human rights record or authoritarianism? In fact, such a president is favoured by the US.

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It has to be admitted that no matter what Assad does, his record on human rights will never match that of the United States. And he will not be the only criminally authoritarian head of state backed by America in the Middle East (or anywhere else). All of the Arab leaders are of that ilk, including the kings and princes in the Gulf States. Despite claims to the contrary, America isn’t very particular about its friends; it certainly doesn’t push democracy when its “interests” dictate otherwise. Not only does it support the Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, for example, but it also kept quiet about the military coup that he led to overthrow Egypt’s first democratically-elected president in 2013. Washington couldn’t even bring itself to use the c-word when commenting on the consequent violence in Egypt.

America’s relationship with Turkey provides another example of its hypocrisy. The US-NATO need Turkey because of its military facilities and capabilities, but that hasn’t stopped America from waging a secret war against its democratically-elected president. Turkish politics are labelled “authoritarian” by the West, and yet it switched to a US-style presidential system of government. Double standards?

In fact, American and EU sanctions and “diplomatic boycott”, which have had no impact on the ground in Syria, were intended solely to whitewash their unwillingness to stop the Assad regime and its atrocities against the people of Syria. The intention has always been to prevent a democracy emerging in Damascus, as it might be more of a threat to Israel than the laughable “axis of evil” regime of Bashar Al-Assad, which poses no threat to the occupation state, and never has.

The US wants the Arab states around Israel to remain weak and divided and, most of all, dependent on Washington. That’s why it is simply not possible to believe that it hasn’t given the green light for states to re-establish links with Assad, regardless of what the State Department claims.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.