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What Are the Political Messages Behind the ‘Biden Sanctions’ on Syria?

What Are the Political Messages Behind the ‘Biden Sanctions’ on Syria?

Friday, 30 July, 2021 - 08:15
US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands in Geneva. AFP

The first list of sanctions imposed by the administration of US President Joe Biden on Syrian entities and figures, has many indications, and confirms a US intention to deal with Syria, after months of delay and consultations within American institutions amid different or contradictory priorities. Here are 10 notes on the “Biden List”:

1. Extensiveness: In contrast to the lists of President Donald Trump’s administration since the implementation of the Caesar Act in June 2020, which included 113 figures and entities in the security, economic and political sectors of the Syrian regime, the first “Biden list” extended to 8 prisons, 5 security officials and two military factions, one of them is Ahrar al-Sharqiya, which is affiliated with the opposition, in addition to two figures who financed al-Qaeda and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

The new procedures dealt with figures in the regime, the opposition and terrorists, but did not include any political or government figure or a Syrian businessman, unlike the lists issued during the Trump era, which punished businessmen accused of “engaging in construction” and officials from the “narrow circle” of President Bashar al-Assad, his wife and their family.

2. Accountability: After the sanctions were issued, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that punishing Syrian officials aims to enhance accountability for entities and individuals, who have caused the Syrian people’s suffering, and “affirms America’s commitment to promoting respect for human rights and accountability for violations against Syrians.” As for punishing two individuals on charges of financing Al-Qaeda, it aims to confirm US commitment to disrupting the support networks of Al-Qaeda, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham and other terrorist groups that seek to attack America and its allies.

In contrast to the current focus on “human rights” and “fighting terrorism,” former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, days before leaving his post, said that 18 individuals and entities were punished for supporting the regime’s war machine and obstructing efforts to end the Syrian conflict.

3. The Caesar Act: The recent list reinforced adherence to the “Caesar Act”. Washington said that the prisons, which were included in the sanctions, were those that appeared in the photos submitted by Caesar, who defected from the regime after he was working as an official photographer for the army, and revealed the harsh treatment of detainees. The measures advance the goals of the law named after him - the 2019 Caesar Civilian Protection Act in Syria - which seeks to promote accountability for regime violations.

4. The Detainees: Sanctions reinforce Washington’s determination to open the file of the detainees and the missing. It sought with its allies to advise the UN envoy, Geir Pedersen, to work on this file in parallel with his efforts to facilitate constitutional reforms and to hold a meeting of the committee in Geneva in the coming weeks.

The US statement stated that the regime has detained and mistreated a large number of Syrians since the beginning of the conflict, and this has been documented by the United Nations committee. The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that more than 14,000 detainees died after being tortured, and 130,000 Syrians are still missing or detained.

5. Aid: The sanctions come after the US-Russian agreement on a joint draft to extend an international resolution to deliver “cross-border” humanitarian aid away from the authority of Damascus. The draft included Washington’s acceptance of three concessions: “Across the Lines” aid, reports from Secretary-General Antonio Guterres settling the issue of extending the resolution for another six months and supporting “early recovery.”

“Our sanctions do not impede the delivery of humanitarian assistance, early recovery programs, humanitarian resilience, or relief from COVID-19,” a US official said.

6. The Kurds: The sanctions also targeted the opposition Ahrar al-Sharqiya faction, which Washington accused of having ISIS members. It also said that the movement looted civilian property, prevented the displaced from returning to their homes, and was involved in the killing of Syrian Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf in October 2019. This reinforces the US administration’s interest in the Kurdish file and its military presence in northeastern Syria. Biden criticized Turkey more than once, unlike Trump, who supported President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on several occasions, including giving him the “green light” to the incursion between Tel Aviv and Ras al-Ain east of the Euphrates in October 2019.

7. The absence of Iran: Trump’s team had set the ousting of Iran from Syria as a strategic goal, and announced using “tools of pressure and isolation” for this purpose. Sanctions were among the tools used (in addition to the military presence east of the Euphrates, Al-Tanf base, the Arab and European isolation of Damascus, support for Turkey’s presence in northern Syria, and support for Israel’s attacks).

However, the “Biden List” and the accompanying statements did not include a reference to geopolitical concessions required from Damascus.

8. “Change of behavior”: The Biden administration’s decision to reduce its list of goals in Syria was reflected in the demand to “change the behavior of the regime” and not “change the regime,” with the absence any reference to “political transition” or the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

These sanctions should serve as a reminder that the United States will use all of its diplomatic tools to advance accountability for people who have committed abuses against the Syrian people, said Aimee Cutrona, a State Department official in charge of Syrian affairs.

In contrast, Pompeo said after announcing the last list of sanctions during his term: “We stand by the people and reaffirm our support for the path of peace stipulated in Resolution 2254.”

9. Three goals: During a closed meeting on Syria in Rome at the end of June, Blinken said that Washington had three goals in Syria: fighting ISIS, humanitarian aid, and a comprehensive cease-fire. In the press briefing after the announcement of the sanctions on Wednesday, US officials said that the new measures were among the “tools” used by Washington to achieve its goals, including fighting ISIS, aid, “not tolerating human rights violations”, and a comprehensive truce...with the hope of providing conditions for a political solution in accordance with Resolution 2254.

10. Russia and “Caesar’s Sword”: Russia launched a campaign against “illegal unilateral sanctions”, and its officials informed their US counterparts of the need to take steps in this direction. Biden’s decision to impose the sanctions and to remind of the Caesar Act, following his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, will surely not echo positively in the Kremlin.

Moreover, the “Biden List” reminds Arab, regional and European countries and the private sector of the possible restraints to the “normalization” with Damascus.

It is true that Blinken’s team agreed to the requests of Arab and European countries not to include an item opposing “normalization” in the joint statement after the Rome conference, but the “Biden List” is a reminder that the American “Caesar Act” is a “legislative sword”, which was approved by Congress with the acceptance of a majority from the Democratic and Republican parties and sets the limits of the political movement.

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