President Joe Biden's administration said it was “encouraged” after an Arab meeting in Amman to discuss normalising ties with Damascus, despite US opposition to bringing Syrian President Bashar Al Assad's regime back into the fold.
Jordan on Monday hosted Arab foreign ministers for talks “aimed at solving the Syrian crisis” in line with a 2015 UN Security Council resolution endorsing a road map for peace, and addressing the “humanitarian, political and security crisis”, a joint statement from Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia said.
A White House National Security Council representative told The National the Biden administration was “encouraged to see the joint communique mention many priorities that we and our partners share”.
“We sincerely hope that the Syrian regime will follow through on its commitments, in good faith and in accordance with international norms.”
The White House said it was particularly pleased that the communique emphasised UN Security Council Resolution 2254 of 2015, which aimed to create an internationally recognised bid for peace in Syria.
“We look forward to discussing and assessing the outcome of the meeting and will continue to make our position clear that UNSCR 2254 remains the only viable solution,” a State Department representative told The National.
The White House official added the administration was “encouraged” that the joint statement addressed the humanitarian crisis in Syria, which included an agreement on delivering humanitarian and medical aid to Syrians “in co-ordination with Damascus and the UN”.
“When it comes to any engagement with the regime, we have stressed to partners that credible steps to improve the humanitarian and security situation for Syrians should be front and centre … we were encouraged to see such steps mentioned in the joint communique issued today and sincerely hope to see their implementation,” the White House representative said.
The Biden administration has broadly maintained an anti-normalisation posture with the Assad regime, but that picture has become more complicated as normalisation efforts accelerated in the aftermath of February's earthquakes in southern Turkey and northern Syria.
The US lifted sanctions on humanitarian aid transactions to Syria, after the Assad regime had routinely blocked the UN from approving cross-border access to opposition-held north-west Syria.
As recently as last month, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters: “Nothing's changed about our desire not to see anybody normalising relations with Assad.
“We don't believe that's in anybody's interests in the region or beyond.”
But as Washington's Arab partners began engaging more with the Assad regime, senior administration official Barbara Leaf expressed a softer tone: “Our approach on that score is that make sure to get something for that engagement,” she said in late March.
Caroline Rose, director of Captagon research at the Washington-based New Lines Institute, told The National that the pace of re-engagement with the Assad regime may have “caught the United States by surprise”.
“These normalisation efforts have been not only moving so fast and happening so quickly … but also the progress and the level of co-ordination that has been struck in these discussions are much, much higher than I think anyone anticipated,” she said.
“We are starting to see, I wouldn't say a [US] green light on normalisation with the [Syrian] regime, but now it seems to be a yellow light,” she added in response to the White House expressing “encouragement”.
Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, policy chief at the Syrian American Council, told The National his organisation was “horrified by such a change in US policy”.
“This is not only severely inimical to US interests but also a clear violation of the will of the US Congress as expressed in laws such as the Caesar Act,” Mr Ghanem said.
US bill targets Syrian regime-linked Captagon drug trade — video
Among the pledges made by Damascus after Monday's talks was a commitment to curb the regional drug trade that has spread from Syria across much of the Middle East.
The Assad regime has used the illicit drug Captagon to prop itself up financially amid international sanctions. Estimates for the drug trade's worth range from $3.4 billion to as much as $30 billion.
According to the joint statement, Syria will work with Jordan and Iraq to form two joint political and security working groups to identify the sources of drug production and smuggling in Syria. The groups would search for drug lords and smugglers and take action to end smuggling operations.
“I would have assumed that the United States … would have reacted a bit more harshly to measures like that. But it seems to me that right now, at least they're curious to see where this goes,” Ms Rose said.
She added that Monday's developments show how Captagon has become an increasingly important factor in the Assad regime's normalisation efforts.
“We really are seeing the regime using and politicising and using Captagon as a pressure tactic, given that so many of these partners and these regional actors know that the regime has so much agency over the trade,” she said.
The White House official told The National that Washington takes “concerns about Captagon very seriously” and “is committed to working with international partners to confront this complex challenge”.