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Analysis

The Biden administration versus Syria’s Bashar Assad

Russian President Vladimir Putin wants Assad to continue in office, but America has taken a firm stance against a presidential election in Syria.

Russia President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Assad in May 2018. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Russia President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Assad in May 2018. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Yoni Ben Menachem
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as director general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad visited Oman on March 20 to try to ease Syria’s return to the Arab world via the Gulf States. Oman has played a traditional role as a regional go-between and has good relations with Iran as well.

The Syrian move was coordinated with Russia—Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently visited several Gulf States to find a way for Syria’s return to the Arab League. The efforts are intended to prepare for a presidential election in Syria in three months. Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to make the villain “kosher” and arrange another seven-year term for Assad, even though it has been 10 years since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, during which the Syrian president committed horrific war crimes against his own citizens.

According to Russian media reports, only 31 percent of Syrian citizens are expected to vote for Assad’s continued tenure. It is difficult to see the presidential elections taking place on time in light of the opposition of the United States and European countries, the coronavirus crisis in Syria and the Assad regime’s economic deterioration.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed in the Syrian civil war, tens of thousands of others were arrested and tortured and millions fled and were displaced from their homes.

The Biden administration is cautious and monitoring events in Syria, especially given the tense relations between Putin and President Biden and the attacks by Syrian forces on civilians on March 21. As the new U.S. administration is beginning to unveil its policy toward Syria, Washington is setting conditions for recognition of the presidential election in Syria in light of Russia and Iran’s intention to re-elect Assad.

Marking the 10th anniversary of the war, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a joint statement with the foreign ministers of France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy,  expressing firm opposition to the idea of an election:

“Impunity is unacceptable, and we will firmly continue to press for accountability for the most serious crimes. We will continue to support the important role of the Commission of Inquiry and the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism. We welcome the ongoing efforts by national courts to investigate and prosecute crimes within their jurisdiction committed in Syria. We will not tolerate Syria’s non-compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention …

“The proposed Syrian Presidential election this year will neither be free nor fair, nor should it lead to any measure of international normalization with the Syrian regime. Any political process needs the participation of all Syrians, including the diaspora and the displaced, to enable all voices to be heard.”

The position of the new U.S. administration is that the only way forward for a political settlement in Syria is in accordance with Security Council Resolution 2254, which was passed on Dec. 18, 2015, and established a “roadmap” for ending the Syrian civil war and finding a political settlement.

In the House of Representatives, members introduced new legislation on March 19, 2021, the “Iran Human Rights and Accountability Act of 2021,” which “requires a determination whether Iran and its militias [Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Iran-backed militias in Syria and Iraq] committed crimes against humanity.”

According to Gulf, Saudi and Qatar officials who rejected requests from Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, Russia is the main force supporting Assad as president of Syria. They conditioned Syria’s return to the Arab League on securing a comprehensive political solution that would also be acceptable to the Syrian opposition.

The Biden administration is taking a firm stance against the presidential elections in Syria and aligns with the position of European countries that such elections are essentially a Russian-Syrian exercise aimed at restoring Assad to the presidency.

The Biden administration is also enforcing the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which went into force last June and imposed sanctions on the Assad regime and anyone who assists it.

(“Caesar” is a Syrian defector who worked for the Syrian military police and smuggled out of Syria more than 50,000 photographs of Syrian torture victims. His photographs are now crucial evidence in European trials against Syrian officials.)

Biden’s Syria policy so far seems to be a continuation of that of the Trump administration. Despite Biden’s attempts to create a dialogue with Iran on the nuclear deal, he is not compromising on Syria, which is a significant point.

Russia can financially assist the Assad regime and prop him up militarily. Putin wants Assad to continue in office, but the international community will not accept presidential elections without oversight to eliminate election fraud. It will be interesting to see what “legitimacy” Putin will arrange for Assad.

Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as director general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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