The United States will “not contribute to reconstruction” in Syria and will “discourage others from doing so” until a political solution can be reached, Special Envoy Joel Rayburn told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in a Wednesday hearing.
Syria is facing an economic meltdown as the Middle Eastern country seeks to rebuild after ten years of civil war. More than 80 percent of Syrians now live below the poverty line — and many have been forced to wait on six-hour bread lines for food — as neighboring Lebanon undergoes a banking crisis.
But the Trump administration and members of Congress from both parties continued to hammer away at the Syrian economy, arguing that Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad is still a threat to civilians and must be pressured into relinquishing his grip on power.
Last year, Congress passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which is named for a Syrian defector who exposed war crimes by the Assad regime. The law aims to deter reconstruction investment from flowing into Syria until certain political conditions are met.
“We lead efforts to withhold normalization and reconstruction aid to the Syrian government absent progress on the political process,” Rayburn said at Wednesday’s hearing.
He added that the economic pressure is meant to “push for a political solution to the conflict,” and to “deter the Assad regime from continuing this brutal war against his own people.”
Fighting is still ongoing in the rebel-held province of Idlib in the northwestern corner of Syria near the Turkish border.
The United States is demanding a negotiated end to the war under United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254. Trump administration officials have previously stated that they cannot see a path forward as long as Assad remains in power.
“Our leverage in Syria is increasing,” Rayburn claimed at the hearing. “Each of our major goals in Syria is within reach.”
He said that ”the Caesar Act has had a remarkable chilling effect on those outside Syria who might have otherwise restored relations with the Assad regime.”
The Biden administration may continue a similar approach.
Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken said in a May 2020 interview that the United States can use reconstruction aid as leverage to demand “some kind of political transition that reflects the desires of the Syrian people,” although he did not explicitly state that he would discourage other nations from providing their own aid.
Some members of Congress — including outgoing House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel (D–N.Y.) and his Republican counterpart Ranking Member Michael McCaul (R–TX) — praised the pressure campaign.
Others expressed skepticism that U.S. policy is working.
Rep. Susan Wild (D–Pa.) asked whether the Trump administration “should re-evaluate our sanctions policies towards Syria…in light of the unintended effects that the sanctions appear to be having on everyday Syrians’ food supply in areas controlled by the Assad regime.”
Rayburn blamed a “propaganda campaign” by the Assad regime, claiming that sanctions do not target food production, and that the United States itself has spent $1.7 billion on humanitarian aid to Syria over the past fiscal year.
“Certainly, Assad and his allies have subverted humanitarian aid,” Rep. Joaquin Castro (D–TX) said. “Still, most [non-governmental organizations] working on the ground say our sanctions are actively hindering our ability to deliver assistance to the Syrian people.”
The United Nations and other humanitarian organizations report that sanctions have had a chilling effect, dissuading banks for dealing with even legitimate aid activities. Rayburn insisted that humanitarian assistance is still legal under U.S. sanctions, but conceded that “over compliance” with sanctions has caused some issues.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D–N.Y.) had the most harsh criticism. He asked Rayburn whether “the replacement of the Assad regime” is the end goal of U.S. policy.
Rayburn declined to answer, stating that the specifics of a political solution to the war should be up to the Syrian people.
Connolly asked whether there was any kind of “mechanism” to “accurately reflect the voice of the Syrian people.”
Rayburn responded that U.N.-sponsored peace negotiations are “the best mechanism that we could hope for,” but requires the United States to “continue to employ our pressure tools” for Assad to accept them.
“Well, good luck with that,” Connolly concluded. “I don’t see a lot of evidence that it’s working.”