Iran has been openly providing the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and the U.S.-designated Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah with millions of dollars worth of oil. The Biden administration has chosen to look the other way, even though Tehran’s shipments are a flagrant violation of both U.S. sanctions and the administration’s stated policy of securing a solution in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 (UNSCR 2254), which calls for a Syrian-led process that would create a permanent, peaceful, and political end to the conflict. To achieve this and push Assad away from Iran, Biden should impose Syria-related sanctions on the Iranian entities providing oil to Damascus.
In October, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed the administration’s commitment to securing a political solution in Syria in line with UNSC 2254. He stated that the administration 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.”
The problem with Blinken’s statement is that the administration claims to have one policy but is seemingly implementing another. Rather than putting Assad in the dilemma of choosing a political settlement under UNSCR 2254 or relying on Iran, Biden’s team is quietly greenlighting the Syrian dictator’s diplomatic rehabilitation without hard incentives.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Biden administration’s refusal to target senior Assad regime financiers with sanctions. From February through December 2020, the prior administration designated over 100 Syrian officials and their enablers, including senior financiers such as Samer Foz, Hussam Qaterji, Yasser Ibrahim, and Mohammed Masouti. That effort ground to a halt as soon as Biden took office. The approval of the regime’s participation in a regional energy agreement that will likely benefit the Syrian government is also an indicator.
If the Biden administration truly wants a political solution in Syria in line with UNSCR 2254, it must constrain Assad’s options, not expand them. To that end, the administration should fully utilize the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act (Caesar Act) and other U.S. sanctions targeting the Syrian regime.
There is no better place to begin than by targeting Iran’s oil shipments to Hezbollah via Syrian ports. Caesar Act sanctions are mandatory, so the White House has a statutory obligation to impose them on all who knowingly provide significant material support to the government of Syria. In addition to being legally indefensible, ignoring Iranian oil shipments to Syria removes a powerful incentive for the economically crippled Assad regime to finally make significant concessions at the negotiating table.
The public evidentiary record is clear with respect to the application of sanctions to the vessels involved, the originator of the oil, and the organizations providing it. The National Iranian Tanker Company is carrying oil extracted and distributed by the National Iranian Oil Company on a wide scale. These entities should be designated for their conduct not just under Iran authorities, but under Syria or Syria-related sanctions as well. This would send a powerful message to the regime that continued reliance on Iranian energy would come at a cost.
Iran is sending fuel to Hezbollah because Lebanon is in the midst of a historic economic crisis that has led to a national energy shortage. The Biden administration says it wants to provide relief to Lebanon while showing Iran is not a true friend of the Lebanese people. Sanctioning Lebanese imports of Iranian fuel via Syria would cut off one source of supply, incentivize Lebanese imports from legitimate sources, and prevent Hezbollah from using the country's energy crisis for its political benefit.
Enforcing sanctions on Iranian crude and finished product into Syria would be an important first step to deny the regime its energy lifeline and, combined with other measures, incentivize it to make political concessions as part of UNSCR 2254, including the constitutional committee, release of detainees, and holding free and fair elections.
Rather than rehabilitating the Assad regime through willful negligence in its sanctions policy, the administration should escalate economic pressure on the Assad regime’s Iranian enablers to regain a measure of leverage at the negotiating table.
Andrew J. Tabler, former Senior Advisor at the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and NSC Syria Director, is the Martin J. Gross Fellow in the Geduld Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Matthew Zweig, former Senior Advisor at the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Senior Professional Staff Member at the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan think tank focused on national security and foreign policy.