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Biden Admin Seeks to Waive Sanctions on Assad

U.S. officials want to facilitate Lebanese energy deal that would provide Assad with financial lifeline

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad / Getty Images
• September 8, 2021 4:45 pm

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The Biden administration is expected to waive sanctions on Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad to facilitate an energy deal with Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon, according to congressional sources briefed on the matter.

The administration wants to waive portions of the bipartisan Caesar Act, which applied wide-ranging sanctions on Assad for his war crimes in Syria, to facilitate an energy deal with Arab nations that would provide the Assad regime with a financial and political lifeline.

Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa who was caught having an extramarital affair with a reporter in 2008 while serving as the Obama administration's ambassadorial nominee to Iraq, is pressing Egypt to sell gas to Lebanon via a pipeline that runs through Syria, congressional sources told the Washington Free Beacon. The Biden administration would have to waive key sanctions on Assad in order for the deal to go through.

As Biden and Democrats in Congress signal a willingness to back sanctions relief, Republican foreign policy leaders say removing sanctions on Assad will embolden his Iranian backers as well as Hezbollah. Indeed, Hezbollah itself sees the deal as a victory in its fight against U.S. sanctions and efforts to expand the Islamic Republic's influence across the Middle East, saying it will loosen restrictions on all three countries involved: Syria, Iran, and Lebanon.

"Why in the world would the Biden administration lift sanctions on one of the most brutal human rights abusers in the world—the Assad regime?" Joe Wilson, a House Foreign Affairs Committee member and chair of the Republican Study Committee's National Security and Foreign Affairs Task Force, told the Free Beacon.

A congressional source tracking the matter said the deal will supply the Assad regime with much-needed hard cash.

"Assad is desperate for hard currency and that's what they are going to get from this via the transit fees," the source said. "The regime is literally starved for cash and Biden is saving them by the bell. A great new win for the human rights agenda after the Taliban taking over Afghanistan. So glad we have the geniuses in charge like McGurk."

Diplomats from Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan met on Wednesday to finalize a roadmap for the energy deal and have signaled the Biden administration is prepared to issue the necessary waiver.

U.S. officials are also participating in the energy negotiations. Dorothy Shea, the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, has been working to address the country's energy issues and confirmed in late August that she is in talks with the World Bank and Arab countries to finalize an agreement. Lebanon is also pushing the World Bank to finance the arrangement. Shea said she has also been in contact with the White House and Treasury Department as part of efforts to waive sanctions.

"There is a will to make this happen," Shea said in an interview with Al Arabiya English last month. "There will be some logistical things that need to happen too, but I think that it will all fall into place fairly easily."

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.), during a trip last week to Lebanon, signaled his party's willingness to back sanctions relief for Assad.

"The complication as you know is the transport via Syria," Van Hollen said of the energy deal. "We are [urgently] looking for ways to address that despite the Caesar Act."

Shea and other Biden administration diplomats believe the energy deal will weaken Iran and Hezbollah because Lebanon would receive energy shipments through Syria instead of Tehran.

But top Hezbollah officials refute this argument. A senior Hezbollah official gloated about the deal after Shea claimed it would undermine the terror group's grip on Lebanon.

"The stupidity of the U.S. ambassador was in her rush to react" to the situation, Hashem Safieddine, the head of Hezbollah's executive council, said on Monday. "With one stroke we broke the siege on three countries: We purchased the fuel from Iran, we transferred it through Syria, and besieged Lebanon benefited from it. This is a first step that we will follow with others."

The Biden administration began laying the groundwork for bypassing the Caesar Act in June when it removed sanctions on several businessmen tied to the Iran-Assad financial network.

Regional experts viewed this move and others—such as lax enforcement of sanctions on Iran's oil trade—as a sign the Biden administration intends to move forward with sanctions relief for Assad as part of the energy agreement with Lebanon.

The move also comes as the Biden administration works to solidify a revamped nuclear deal with Iran, negotiations that stalled even as senior administration officials show a willingness to waive a large portion of sanctions on the Iranian regime.

"U.S.-Lebanon policy is by definition pro-Iran," said Tony Badran, a veteran Lebanon analyst and research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "Under the pretext of ‘saving' Lebanon and ‘countering' Hezbollah, the U.S. is in fact propping up the Iranian order and Iranian clients."

"The conceit that wheeling gas and electricity to Lebanon through Syria somehow weakens Iran's position in Beirut or even Damascus is laughably absurd as well as blatantly dishonest," said Badran, who has been tracking the energy deal's developments. "It's simply a pretext for a pro-Iran posture."

Congressional sources told the Free Beacon that the Trump administration was presented with an opportunity to waive sanctions on Assad as part of a similar deal, but they declined due to concerns such a move would enrich the Syrian dictator as he commits mass human rights abuses.

A Treasury Department spokesman said the State Department has the authority to waive sanctions under the Caesar Act. The State Department did not respond to Free Beacon requests for comment by press time.