Congress members sign letter warning Arab states against normalisation with Syria’s Assad

More than 30 politicians from both parties urge Secretary of State to stress US opposition to diplomatic ties with the Syrian President

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives at an airport in New Delhi on October 26, 2020. / AFP / POOL / ADNAN ABIDI

A bipartisan letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging against normalisation with the Syrian government of Bashar Al Assad has accumulated more than 30 signatures from members of both parties in the US House of Representatives.

The letter was drafted and sent by Democratic chairman of the House committee on foreign affairs, Eliot Engel, and Republican committee member Michael McCaul.

It asks Mr Pompeo to make clear US opposition to any diplomatic ties from its allies towards Mr Al Assad.

“Given the regime’s continued deplorable crimes against its own people, we urge the Department of State to continue to make clear… that the US opposes any efforts to renew diplomatic ties with or extend formal diplomatic recognition to the Assad regime,” the letter said.

It voiced alarm over renewed regional diplomatic ties between some Arab states and Damascus, and threatened sanctions under the 2020 Caesar Act that could obstruct elements of a rapprochement with Mr Al Assad.

“We are pleased that the Administration has imposed sanctions under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which we strongly supported," the letter read.

"We look forward to working with you to ensure ongoing robust implementation of the Caesar Act."

The signatories feature Congress members from both parties, including Brad Sherman, Adam Kinzinger, Lee Zeldin and Karen Bass.

Nicholas Heras, the director of government relations at the Institute for the Study of War, regarded the letter as a message to future Congress members due to take office in January.

“This letter is laying down a gauntlet for the 117th Congress," Mr Heras said.

"Two of the signatories, Mr Meeks and Mr Sherman, are front runners to become the next House foreign affairs committee chairperson."

It is also a signal to regional countries, especially Gulf states who may be warming to Mr Al Assad, he said.

“It is responding to policy chatter in DC that there are pathways for the Assad regime to rebuild ties with regional actors in the Middle East, especially the Gulf states, and some European allies of the United States, before the regime proves that it has changed its behaviour as required by the Caesar Act,” Mr Heras said.

Only last week, Oman sent an ambassador to Syria, becoming the first Gulf state to do so since 2012.the first from a Gulf state since 2012.

Mr Heras saw the threat of sanctions as an assertive public approach from Congress to keep the Assad regime isolated.

“This is a good example of how the US Congress is a powerful actor in the effort to prevent the Assad regime from winning the war over the aftermath of the war in Syria,” he said.

Congress can pressure the executive branch to enforce US policy in passing legislation and enforcing and monitoring the application of sanctions.

Inside the Trump administration itself, recent actions show a split between the State Department and the White House in approaching the issue.

The Wall Street Journal reported this month that Kash Patel, a deputy assistant to the President, travelled to Damascus for secret talks with the Assad regime over the summer to discuss US hostages held by Syria.

The National reported that National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien met Lebanon's spymaster Abbas Ibrahim two weeks ago. Mr Ibrahim is mediating the release of Austin Tice from Syria.

But Mr Pompeo pushed back against a policy change towards Mr Al Assad to release hostages.

“We’ll continue to work for the return not only of Austin, but for every American that’s held. We’re not going to change American policy to do that,” he said.