How the Biden Admin Is Protecting Syria's Assad From Sanctions

Congressional report on Assad finances 'late, lackadaisical, riddled with errors'

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad (Getty Images)
April 29, 2022

The Biden administration is trying to shield Syrian president Bashar al Assad from sanctions via a congressionally mandated report, according to lawmakers who say it is "late, lackadaisical, and riddled with errors."

The State Department was required on Tuesday to issue a report to Congress detailing the Syrian dictator’s financial empire but failed to meet that deadline. After requests for information on the report from the Washington Free Beacon and a pressure campaign from Republican foreign policy leaders, the State Department posted the report late Thursday.

The final report contained several errors, little-to-no new information about Assad’s empire, and left Republican lawmakers livid over what they say is the Biden administration’s bid to withhold critical information that could help Congress craft sanctions on Assad’s family and financial allies, including his benefactors in Iran.

Prior to the report's release, Republican members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee told the Free Beacon that the Biden administration was withholding the report in order to avoid irritating Iran amid negotiations over a new nuclear agreement. They expected the report, which was legally mandated in bipartisan legislation passed last year, to provide details on Assad that would help Congress target the illicit financial channels that have enabled the dictator’s mass human rights crimes in Syria.

"What was released was late, lackadaisical, and riddled with errors," Rep. Pat Fallon (R., Texas), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told the Free Beacon. "One cannot help but to think that this may have something to do with the erroneous negotiations taking place with Iran."

Fallon said the administration’s "trend of failing to apply the rule of law to its fullest degree to terrorist regimes such as this is deeply troubling" and called on Secretary of State Antony Blinken to "immediately issue a full and robust report."

The report’s inadequacies are fueling concerns about the Biden administration’s efforts to roll back pressure on Assad and legitimize his regime. The administration has already floated plans to unwind sanctions on Assad to facilitate an energy deal with Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon. Lawmakers expected the report would unmask the financial pipelines that connect Assad and Hezbollah, the Iran-backed terror group.

Rep. Claudia Tenney (R., N.Y.), who authored the provision mandating the report, told the Free Beacon it is clear the State Department rushed to publication and omitted information on the Assad regime’s illicit drug trade.

"Not only did the Department of State fail to deliver the report on time, but when it finally did deliver it, the report was clearly rushed," Tenney said. "I am particularly disappointed that it did not discuss at length the Assad regime’s increasing involvement in drug trafficking through the illicit Captagon trade, which is generating increasing revenue for the Assad regime and its proxies, such as Hezbollah. The Department undoubtedly could, and should, have comprised a much more comprehensive report on Assad’s illicit and corrupt activities."

Captagon, an illicit amphetamine, has been a prime source of revenue for Assad and his family members. While the report notes that Assad’s brother, Maher, is involved in the "smuggling of the amphetamine captagon," it does not provide any details about these networks and relies only on material that has already been published.

A majority of the report relies only on "open-source information" published in the media and by NGOs. While a classified annex accompanies the report, lawmakers and senior congressional sources who spoke to the Free Beacon said the State Department’s reliance on previously published information shows that it spent very little time researching the report and fulfilling the law.

"It seems they began writing this report 9 a.m. the day after it was due just to get it done," said one senior Republican congressional official who works on foreign policy issues. "They did such a bad job on it that they are basically sheltering Assad and his wealth. There are much better reports out there in the open source by reporters and journalists with information about the Assad family’s wealth."

The report pegs the Assad family’s net worth at around $1 to $2 billion but claims "this is an inexact estimate which the [State] Department is unable to independently corroborate." Several paragraphs later, the report claims that Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, is worth $5 to $10 billion—a discrepancy that was immediately noted by Republican lawmakers who reviewed the report.

"I’m disappointed that the report was, at best, the bare minimum of what was required," Rep. Joe Wilson (R., S.C.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Free Beacon. "Sadly, this is a weak, sloppy, and clearly rushed report that shelters the Assad regime from scrutiny."

Former Trump administration officials also took aim at the final report.

"I don’t see anything substantial or new here," tweeted Matthew Zweig, who served as the senior sanctions adviser in the Office of the Special Representative for Syria Engagement. "The Assad wealth report is a missed opportunity."