Biden Move To Halt Syria Sanctions Will Boost Assad, Critics Say

GOP lawmakers say US sanctions already include carveouts for humanitarian aid to reach Syria in wake of earthquake

Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad / Wikimedia Commons
February 13, 2023

A Biden administration decision to halt sanctions on Syria will prop up dictator Bashar al-Assad and make it easier for his regime to steal humanitarian assistance, according to Republican lawmakers and regional experts, who argue that current U.S. sanctions already include carveouts for humanitarian aid that can reach the country in the wake of a massive earthquake that killed 33,000.

The Treasury Department late last week issued a license that freezes all measures prohibiting financial transactions in Syria, according to a copy of the authorization reviewed by the Washington Free Beacon. The license was meant to make humanitarian aid reach the country more easily, but sources said it is unnecessary and so broad that it will allow Assad to siphon international aid money to pay for his war on opposition groups, which has been ongoing for 12 years.

"President Biden's Syria general license has no controls to prevent diversions that could allow aid money to end up in the hands of the regime," Sen. James Risch (R., Idaho), the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told the Free Beacon. "It is misguided, and will be a windfall to Assad."

The authorization is an unnecessary gift to Assad because U.S. sanctions already include exceptions for humanitarian aid, according to Risch. The Biden administration has tried several times since taking office to waive a range of sanctions on Syria as part of what sources described as a bid to normalize Assad's regime. The recent earthquake has provided the administration with an opportunity to water down sanctions, creating a "dangerous precedent," according to Risch and other Republican lawmakers. Iran and Russia, Assad's main patrons, have already used the earthquake as an excuse to reinforce the dictator's regime.

"Easing sanctions on Assad without guardrails opens the door for the regime to line its pockets without helping those in need," Rep. Joe Wilson (R., S.C.), a member of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees, told the Free Beacon. "Even worse, this feeds into the Assad regime's false claims that U.S. sanctions were preventing aid and assistance efforts to the Syrian people. Instead of lifting sanctions, the Biden administration should hold [Russian president Vladimir] Putin and Assad responsible for prohibiting aid from going through the Turkey-Syria border crossings."

The waiver, which is active for 180 days, allows for "certain earthquake disaster relief and associated financial transactions," according to information about the license provided to Congress and reviewed by the Free Beacon. The type of transactions permitted under the waiver are not outlined in the document, giving rise to concerns that Assad's allies could transfer funds to the dictator under the false guise of disaster relief. The waiver also does not provide any guidance on how earthquake relief transactions are defined, as is common when sanctions exceptions are granted.

"The Biden administration is opening the door wide for sanctions evasion," said David Adesnik, a former Pentagon official who works on the Syria issue at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank. "The Assad regime has spent a decade diverting [United Nations] aid into its pockets while denying help to those who truly need it. Assad is desperate for cash and won't miss an opportunity to exploit this opening."

Adesnik, like members of Congress, expressed fears the license is unnecessary, particularly since the State Department has been adamant during the last several weeks that U.S. sanctions are not hindering aid efforts.

The State Department "kept insisting—truthfully—that the administration had already put in place measures to prevent sanctions from interfering with aid," Adesnik said. "This license just validates Assad's self-serving claims that sanctions really do block humanitarian assistance."

Syrian opposition groups also have raised concerns that the earthquake is providing an opportunity for Assad's allies, like Iran and Russia, to strengthen his grip on power.

Wa'el Alzayat, a former State Department official who worked on Middle East issues, wrote in the Washington Post last week that "lifting sanctions on Syria won't help earthquake victims."

Assad's American allies are already spinning the earthquake as an excuse to weaken U.S. sanctions on the regime. The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, an isolationist think tank bankrolled by George Soros and Charles Koch, is urging the Biden administration to "make important and constructive changes to its own policies" in light of the disaster. "Sanctions are a serious obstacle to providing Syrians with disaster relief and helping them to rebuild," the think tank claimed.

The State Department declined to answer Free Beacon questions about the license, pointing instead to a Feb. 10 press briefing in which deputy spokesman Vedant Patel said the administration is "advocating for the quick ease and flow of as much humanitarian aid as possible."

Patel said the waiver does not lift sanctions but rather sends "a message to anyone who wants to engage in earthquake relief that U.S. sanctions will not stand in the way."