Blinken says U.S. does not support normalisation efforts with Syria’s Assad

FILE PHOTO: Syria's President Bashar al-Assad addresses the new members of parliament in Damascus
FILE PHOTO: Syria's President Bashar al-Assad addresses the new members of parliament in Damascus, Syria in this handout released by SANA on August 12, 2020. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

October 13, 2021

By Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States does not intend to support any efforts to normalise ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or rehabilitate him until there is irreversible progress towards a political solution in Syria, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday.

Blinken’s comments at a news conference come at a time when a shift is underway in the Middle East among the Arab allies of the United States, who are bringing Assad in from the cold by reviving economic and diplomatic ties.

Jordan, a staunch U.S. ally, fully reopened its main border crossing with Syria in late September, to boost the countries’ struggling economies and reinforce a push by Arab states to reintegrate Syria after shunning it over its civil war.

Jordan’s King Abdullah also spoke to Assad for the first time in a decade this month while the Egyptian and Syrian foreign ministers met last month on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, in what Egyptian media said was the first meeting at that level for about a decade.

“What we have not done and what we do not intend to do is to express any support for efforts to normalise relations or rehabilitate Mr Assad or lifted a single sanction on Syria or changed our position to oppose the reconstruction of Syria, until there is irreversible progress toward a political solution, which we believe is necessary and vital,” Blinken said.

The United States has suspended its diplomatic presence in Syria since 2012.

Blinken said in the nine months since President Joe Biden took office on Jan. 20, Washington has focused on expanding humanitarian access to Syria, sustaining the campaign against Islamic State and making clear the U.S. commitment to demand accountability from Assad’s government.

But Syria has not been a foreign policy priority for the Biden administration, analysts note, as Washington largely concentrated on countering China. The administration has yet to apply sanctions under the so-called Caesar Act, which came into force last year with the aim of increasing pressure on Assad.

“As we’re moving forward in the time ahead, keeping violence down, increasing humanitarian assistance, and focusing our military efforts on any terrorist groups that pose a threat to us or to our partners…These are going to be critical areas of focus for us,” Blinken said.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Simon Lewis and Daphne Psaledakis in Washington, additional reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; editing by Philippa Fletcher)