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US rules out normalization with Syria while Assad in power

Blinken, meeting with Israeli, UAE counterparts, says Washington won’t lift sanctions without ‘vital’ political progress, despite warming ties between Arab states and Damascus

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accompanied by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, left, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyanin, right, speaks at a joint news conference at the State Department in Washington, October 13, 2021. (Andrew Harnik/AP))
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accompanied by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, left, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyanin, right, speaks at a joint news conference at the State Department in Washington, October 13, 2021. (Andrew Harnik/AP))

WASHINGTON, United States — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken renewed US opposition Wednesday to normalization with Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has seen growing acceptance from Arab nations that have concluded he won the brutal civil war.

Meeting with his Israeli and UAE counterparts, Blinken said that US President Joe Biden’s administration’s policy on Syria was largely focused on humanitarian relief.

“What we have not done, and what we do not intend to do, is to express any support for efforts to normalize relations or rehabilitate Mr. Assad,” Blinken told a joint news conference, not referring to Assad as president.

The United States has not “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.

A US law known as the Caesar Act came into force last year that punishes any companies that work with Assad as he seeks to rebuild after a decade of war.

The Caesar Act, accompanied by a slew of US sanctions on Syrians close to Assad, aims to force accountability for human rights abuses and to encourage a political solution in Syria.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, center, waves to his supporters at a polling station during presidential elections in the town of Douma, in the eastern Ghouta region, near the Syrian capital Damascus, Syria, May 26, 2021. (Hassan Ammar/AP)

The United Arab Emirates has earlier said that the Caesar Act made it difficult for Syria to return to the Arab League.

But individual Arab states have been warming to Assad, with Jordanian King Abdullah II, a key US ally, earlier this month speaking to the Syrian leader by phone for the first time since the war. Syria’s defense minister last month visited Jordan and met with Jordanian military officials.

Syria was also invited to take part in Dubai’s Expo 2020, the first world’s fair in the Middle East. Crisis-hit Lebanon is working on getting electricity from Jordan through Syria and a 10-year old deal to transport Egyptian natural gas through Jordan and Syria to Lebanon was also revived in September.

Syria’s war has killed around half a million people, displaced millions of others, and helped allow the rise of the brutal Islamic State extremist group.

Arab and Western countries blamed Assad for the deadly crackdown on the uprising that erupted in 2011, and supported the opposition in early days of the conflict.

Assad has crushed opposition through brute force and an alliance with Russia and Iran, although he still lacks control of northern areas run either by Kurdish fighters or Turkey and its proxies.

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