Syria's challenge to Tony Blinken's conscience

Syria's challenge to Tony Blinken's conscience
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The Nazi massacre at Babyn Yar claimed the lives of 33,771 Ukrainian Jews in September 1941. To mark the 80th anniversary of the massacre, Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenBiden tries to tamp down tensions with Putin call Overnight Defense & National Security — Lawmakers clinch deal on defense bill Biden's 'Democracy Summit' meets the African paradox MORE meditated on the lessons of the past. We must, he said, “recommit ourselves to ensuring that their full history is told, and pledge to act, every day, so that history is not repeated.” That notion is unobjectionable, even banal. Nonetheless, it is absent from the Biden administration’s policy toward Syria. Unrepentant, Bashar al-Assad continues preside over prisons that churn out emaciated corpses in a manner reminiscent of the Third Reich. Yet according to Blinken, the United States will no longer stand in the way of those who seek Assad’s diplomatic rehabilitation.

The secretary of state is the stepson of an Auschwitz survivor, whose rescue by an African-American GI he recounted during the opening remarks at his confirmation hearing. On Holocaust remembrance day in April, Blinken honored the civil servants who appealed to President Roosevelt when the State Department placed one barrier after another in the way of European Jews seeking refuge in the United States. Their effort changed the president’s mind, enabling tens of thousands to enter the country.

During the first weeks of his tenure, Blinken made a commitment to “put human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy.” Initially, that extended to Syria. The administration pledged full implementation of the Caesar Act, the 2019 law that imposed expansive sanctions to isolate and hold accountable the Assad regime. “The world must renew its shared resolve to promote the dignity and human rights of all Syrians,” Blinken said in July, announcing sanctions on eight Syrian prisons and their overseers.

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Weeks later, a quiet reversal began. In mid-August, the U.S. approved Syrian participation in a regional plan for trading natural gas and electric power. The U.S. ambassador in Beirut — there is none in Damascus — said that Washington’s sanctions on the Assad regime would not get in the way of the deal. “There is a will to get this this done,” she noted. Reportedly, the Biden administration even advised the four countries participating in the deal — Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan — how to structure their agreement in order to avoid sanctions.

Syria’s neighbors readily understood the signals from Washington, even though few inside the Beltway noticed. Neighbors that had once shunned Assad — whether out of principle or deference to Washington — suddenly raced to engage the regime. A delegation of Lebanese ministers visited Damascus in early September, the first such contact in a decade. Days later, the Jordanian minister of energy hosted his Egyptian, Syrian, and Lebanese counterparts in Amman to discuss their joint venture. The Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers then met with Assad’s top diplomat on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. In early October, King Abdullah of Jordan accepted a personal phone call from Bashar al-Assad, which he had not done since the war in Syria began.

This flurry of activity alerted journalists to the administration’s reversal; they began asking questions. The response was twofold. One the one hand, the State Department said U.S. policy toward Syria had not changed. Yet its spokespersons were careful not to reiterate the old calls for Assad’s isolation. Rather, they insisted the United States would not normalize relations with the Syrian regime, nor would it encourage others to do so. The Department seemed to hope that few would notice the difference between actively opposing normalization and simply not encouraging it.

Last week, Blinken finally faced a direct question from a reporter about Syria. Like his subordinates, the secretary sought to convey an impression of continuity while carefully selecting his words to avoid contradicting the new policy. He said, “What we have not done and what we do not intend to do is to express any support for efforts to normalize relations or rehabilitate Mr. Assad or lifted a single sanction on Syria or changed our position to oppose the reconstruction of Syria until there is irreversible progress toward a political solution.”

Blinken spoke those words only seven days after his commemoration of Babyn Yar. He should recall the civil servants who told FDR that his administration was complicit in the destruction of European Jewry. He should approach President BidenJoe BidenHouse passes 8B defense policy bill House approves bill to ease passage of debt limit hike Senate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale MORE and the rest of the cabinet to explain why both our country’s principles and its national interest favor the isolation of a regime that continues to bomb hospitals, torture political prisoners en masse, and refuses to address evidence that it maintains an illegal chemical weapons program.

There is still time to reverse the gains Assad has made. Gas and power won’t begin to flow through Syria for roughly another three months, since repairs are under way to pipelines and other infrastructure damaged by the war. More importantly, the president has not officially waived Caesar Act sanctions nor has the administration formally circumvented them by other means. Clear messages from the secretary of state and the president could marginalize Assad once again, so that Moscow and Tehran remain the only capitals where he can expect a warm welcome.

The Syrian-American community and other advocates of human rights still hope that Blinken will serve as the conscience of this administration. During last year’s campaign, when asked to explain Biden’s view of Syria, Blinken spoke emotionally about how the Obama administration, in which he held senior positions, “failed to prevent a horrific loss of life” and massive displacement of refugees. “It’s something that I will take with me for the rest of my days,” he said. Now is the time to show it.

David Adesnik is a senior fellow and director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD), a nonprofit, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) research institute focusing on foreign policy and national security. FDD does not accept donations from foreign governments.