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Syria Today – U.S. Anti-Normalization Bill; Lebanon Condemned for Deporting Refugees, AANES Welcomes Syria’s Return to AL

Your daily brief of the English-speaking press on Syria.
Syria Today – U.S. Anti-Normalization Bill; Lebanon Condemned for Deporting Refugees, AANES Welcomes Syria’s Return to AL

A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers has introduced a new legislation seeking to counter the normalization of President Bashar al-Assad, while researchers argued that Syria’s return to the Arab League signals a shift in regional dynamics. Meanwhile, Human Rights groups have condemned the deportation of Syrian refugees from Lebanon. At the same time, the Kurdish-led AANES welcomed Syria’s readmission to Arab League and expressed its readiness to cooperate with Arab countries over a solution for the Syrian crisis.

U.S. Lawmakers Unveil Bill Targeting Normalization of Syria’s Assad

As Arab states rebuild ties with Syria, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers has introduced sweeping legislation seeking to counter the normalization of President Bashar al-Assad, Al-Monitor has learned

The bill led by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) would expand economic sanctions against Assad’s financial backers and cronies. Dubbed the “Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act of 2023,” its release comes days after the Arab League voted to readmit Syria, whose membership was suspended over Assad’s bloody response to his country’s peaceful uprising in 2011. 

Lawmakers hope to force the Biden administration’s hand after two years of what they describe as a passive US policy on Syria, where a decade of fighting has killed hundreds of thousands of people and spawned the world’s worst refugee crisis.

The legislation builds upon the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, a 2019 law that authorizes sanctions on those who do business with the Syrian government. The new bill expands the list of possible Caesar Act targets to include all members of the Syrian parliament, senior members of the ruling Baath Party and those responsible for diverting international humanitarian aid. 

It also targets individuals involved in the confiscation of Syrian citizens’ property for “personal gain or political purposes” — a reference to Assad’s controversial Law No. 10, which effectively allows the government to seize the property of displaced Syrians for redevelopment. 

The regime is accused of using its vast patronage networks to divert millions of dollars in international humanitarian assistance. Under the new bill, the White House would be required to determine whether the Syria Trust for Development, a charity led by Syria’s first Lady Asma al-Assad and a key source of patronage, meets the criteria for Caesar sanctions. 

The bill also takes aim at a US-backed effort to send Jordanian electricity and Egyptian gas to Lebanon via a transnational pipeline that runs through Syria. The Syrian government would receive in-kind compensation in the form of gas supplies, rather than cash, for its participation in the stalled four-country energy project. The legislation amends the Caesar Act to make “in-kind transactions” with Damascus sanctionable.

Assad has tightened his two-decade grip on power, some 12 years into Syria’s civil war. Aided by Russia and Iran, the regime has won back much of the territory it lost during the conflict, aside from a Kurdish-controlled pocket in the northeast and the rebel-held bastion of Idlib province in the northwest.  

The legislation’s release comes as regional states, including some that once funneled weapons to the rebels trying to oust Assad, are resuming economic and diplomatic ties they suspended more than a decade ago. Efforts to normalize gained momentum amid the outpouring of regional sympathy that followed the deadly Feb. 6 earthquakes in Syria and Turkey. 

Syria’s normalization signals a new Middle Eastern order

The Brookings Institute published Thursday a long paper on Syria’s return to the Arab League. The paper said reinstating Syria signals a shift in regional dynamics, focusing on the decline of U.S. influence

The Arab League’s decision to reinstate Syria’s membership marks a significant turning point in the normalization of the Assad regime. However, the process of normalization has yet to yield substantial outcomes for both Assad’s regime and Arab counterparts. This decision should be seen as part of a broader shift in the region’s dynamics, indicating the consolidation of a new security architecture that manages rivalries. It represents the most significant change since the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

According to the paper, regional actors are responding to geopolitical shifts, including the reduced role of the United States and the emergence of a multipolar order. Arab regimes are taking on a greater share of the regional security burden and seeking alternatives beyond the United States, such as China. While this framework may not resolve regional divisions entirely, it has the potential to prevent conflicts from escalating. It could pave the way for a locally organized security framework in the Arab world.

These changes, the paper suggests, challenge long-held assumptions of U.S. Middle East policy, which aimed to contain Iran and support Arab partners. The United States is finding itself on the sidelines, struggling to exert influence. Arab engagement with Assad’s regime, the renewal of Saudi-Iranian ties brokered by China, and Iran’s growing regional role highlight the diminishing significance of U.S. interests in regional calculations. The Biden administration’s attempts to assert a leading role have had limited impact, as regional dynamics now revolve around factors where the U.S. has limited influence.

The lasting impact of these realignments remains uncertain. While Syria is likely to remain economically isolated due to sanctions, Iran’s regional standing has solidified. However, deep Arab distrust of Iran persists. Regional dynamics will increasingly be influenced by factors beyond the United States’ control, despite its military presence and counterterrorism efforts. Maintaining relevance will require the U.S. to actively oppose Assad’s normalization, challenge autocrats, and support civic sectors in the region. Failure to do so will result in a further decline of American influence and uncertainty about the reception of U.S. views in the Middle East.

Human rights groups demand that Lebanon halt summary deportations of Syrian refugees

A group of leading Syrian and international human rights groups published a joit statement calling on the Lebanese government to stop deporting Syrian refugees. 

Lebanon’s Armed Forces have been conducting deportations of hundreds of Syrian refugees back to Syria, where they face the risk of persecution and torture, according to reports from national and international organizations, said the statement. 

The deportations have been carried out through discriminatory raids on the houses of Syrian refugees across various neighbourhoods in Lebanon, with many of the deportees being registered or known to the UNHCR. The deportees have not been given the opportunity to speak with a lawyer or UNHCR, and they have been denied the right to challenge their deportation or present their case for protection.

The organizations have condemned these deportations, stating that the Lebanese authorities have mismanaged the country’s economic crisis and are scapegoating refugees instead of implementing necessary reforms. Refugees who have been forcibly returned to Syria have faced arrest, disappearance, and other violations by Syrian military and security forces, including torture, sexual violence, and enforced disappearance.

The deportations are accompanied by other coercive measures aimed at pressuring Syrian refugees to return, such as curfews, restrictions on renting housing, and the requirement to share personal information under the threat of deportation. The hostile environment for refugees has been worsened by the rise in anti-refugee rhetoric, fueled by local authorities, politicians, and media outlets. This has led to increased tensions and created fear and panic among the Syrian community in Lebanon.

Lebanon is obligated under international law, including the Convention Against Torture and the principle of non-refoulment, not to return individuals at risk of torture or persecution. Deportation orders should only be issued by judicial authorities or the General Director of General Security in exceptional cases, following individual assessments. Lebanon should immediately halt summary deportations to Syria, refrain from discriminatory measures, and ensure due process and the right to legal representation for individuals at risk of deportation.

Signatories included, among others, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Syrian Network for Human Rights

For Syrian refugees, Assad’s rehabilitation prompts fear of forced return

CNN reported that for millions of Syrian refugees scattered around the world, the re-admission of the Syrian regime to the Arab family of nations on Sunday may have looked like victory for a dictator who was the very cause of their displacement and misery.

Advocates of Syria’s re-admission to the Arab League argued that it is part of an attempt to find an “Arab solution” to the Syrian crisis after all other efforts had apparently failed. A statement issued by the bloc on Sunday said the move “addresses the humanitarian, security and political crises in Syria, the crisis’ repercussions on neighbouring countries, especially the burden of refugees, terrorism and drug smuggling.”

But some are skeptical of the bloc’s ability to find a humane and just solution to the refugee crisis, warning that a rapprochement with the Syrian regime could prompt hosting nations to force the return of Syrian refugees despite potential threats to their lives.

“The normalization of the Assad regime and welcoming him back into the Arab League is a step that can normalize the conversation about pushing refugees back to Syria, which is very risky,” said Omar Alshogre, a Sweden-based Syrian refugee and activist who says he was detained and tortured by Assad’s regime.

Alshogre, who was smuggled out of Syria in 2015, also expressed disappointment at “the silence of Arab populations,” which he says allows their Arab governments to act without accountability.

‘Palpable terror’

Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, told CNN that the polling data “simply cements the core reasoning for why the refugee crisis remains intractable.”

“Regional states can pressure Assad to accept returns all they want, but it’s not going to change the palpable terror felt by refugees who simply won’t choose to return,” he said.

Even before Arab normalization with the Assad regime began, human rights organizations had repeatedly warned that Syrian refugees risked facing forced returns home amid concerns for their safety.

Earlier this year, Denmark – which hosts more than 35,000 Syrian refugees – deemed more areas controlled by the Assad regime to be safe for return.

The announcement was met with condemnation from international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, which said that “Denmark should refrain from playing into the regime’s hand.”

“While active hostilities may have decreased in recent years, the Syrian government continues to subject citizens to the same abuses that led them to flee in the first place, including arbitrary detention, mistreatment, and torture,” Human Rights Watch said just two months ago.

Lister said there is a real danger that “smaller numbers of deeply vulnerable refugees could be targeted for coerced returns.”

“We’ve already seen this in Lebanon and Turkey, and to a limited extent in Jordan too – and that’s likely just the start,” Lister said, adding that forced refugee returns place victims at “extremely high risk of persecution by the regime, or regime-linked actors.”

In neighbouring Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has tried to put an end to the country’s refugee issue, a move that analysts have said was intended to boost his popularity ahead of this week’s election.

AANES expresses readiness to cooperate with Arab states on Syria

On Thursday, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) expressed its readiness to cooperate with Arab countries over a solution for the Syrian crisis based on UN Resolution No. 2254, North Press reported.

The AANES, in a statement publicized on its official website, welcomed Syria’s readmission to Arab League following a decision by Arab foreign ministers on May 7th.

The AANES sees Syria’s return to the Arab bloc as a positive step, hoping it would open the perspectives for communication and joint work with each of the Syrian government and other Syrian parties that believe in a democratic political solution, as well as with Arab states.

The statement added that the AANES can play a key role in the political solution given the political, economic, security, and humanitarian capabilities it enjoys.

Additionally, the administration called on Arab countries to communicate with all Syrians rather than one party to the detriment of others since the Syrian political solution requires Syrian censuses and effective and serious steps that the AANES showed through its political initiative, the statement read.

On April 18th, the AANES launched an initiative called the “Peaceful Resolution of the Syrian Crisis,” in accordance with United Nations resolutions, after the failure of all international initiatives.

The AANES’ initiative called on the United Nations and all international actors in Syria to play a positive and effective role, and contribute to a joint solution with the Syrian government, AANES, and national democratic forces, and reach a democratic and peaceful solution in Syria.

“Our initiative is a confirmation of the territorial integrity of Syria, the equal rights of all Syrians, establishing a decentralized, democratic and pluralistic system where all Syrians can live in freedom, and the equitable distribution of the natural and economic resources,”  said Badran Chiya Kurd, co-chair of the Foreign Relations Department of AANES on April 21.

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