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Photo: Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

A decade after the Arab League voted to suspend Syria at the onset of a brutal civil war, Bashar al-Assad is being welcomed back in from the cold by some of America's closest regional allies.

Driving the news: Jordan's King Abdullah II, the first Arab leader to call for Assad to resign in 2011, spoke to the Syrian dictator last week for the first time since the conflict broke out, and recently reopened the two countries' main border crossing to help boost trade.

  • Egypt's foreign minister met his Syrian counterpart at the UN General Assembly last month and vowed to help "restore Syria's position in the Arab world."
  • And the United Arab Emirates announced Sunday that it had agreed to deepen economic cooperation with Syria.
  • Flashback: All three countries supported Western-backed rebels against Assad in the civil war, which Assad has now largely won thanks to Russian and Iranian interventions.

The big picture: Hopes for regime change are long gone, the U.S. isn't focused on Syria, and regional actors feel they must step into the vacuum to protect their own interests, says Charles Lister, director of the Middle East Institute's Syria program.

  • Those include economic necessities, a desire to counter regional rivals like Iran and Turkey, and a practical embrace of Assad as "the devil they know."
  • But at the crux of it all, Lister contends, is that the region has "given up on the U.S. having a more forceful posture against the regime."

Zoom in: Congress passed a law in 2019 known as the Caesar Act, which requires the U.S. to sanction Syrian officials and entities responsible for atrocities, as well as actors that support the regime.

  • The Biden administration has only issued one set of sanctions under the Caesar Act, and the public nature of recent normalization steps — including the UAE's brazen claim that it is Syria's "most prominent global trade partner" — suggests that the law is not a concern.
  • "The fact that we're seeing this rhetoric coming out so publicly in the open would seem to suggest to me there does appear to be a kind of tacit acceptance by the Biden administration that it is okay for the region to re-engage," Lister says.
  • The Biden administration itself recently backed a deal that would route Egyptian gas to Lebanon — which has been experiencing crippling power outages — via Syria.

For the record: A State Department spokesman told Axios that the Caesar Act was an "important tool" but that sanctions had to be balanced with humanitarian concerns.

  • "The U.S. do not express any support for other countries to normalize or rehabilitate relations with the Assad regime," the spokesperson added.

What to watch: Saudi Arabia is one powerful regional actor that has continued to resist normalization with Syria thus far. "Eventually there will come a point at which the Saudis decide to go with the direction that the wind is blowing," a move that will likely put an end to any hopes of a UN-brokered political solution, Lister predicts.

Go deeper

Updated Jan 14, 2022 - World

HRW criticizes Biden over "mixed signals" on human rights

Photo: Dustin Chambers/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Human Rights Watch criticized President Biden and other leaders of democratic nations for sending "mixed signals" on human rights in its annual World Report published on Thursday, saying they "are not meeting the challenges before them."

Why it matters: Though Biden pledged to put human rights at the center of his foreign policy, HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth wrote that weapon sales to repressive governments and public reticence on certain human rights violations place those promises in question.

Updated 56 mins ago - Energy & Environment

Bomb cyclone prompts blizzard warnings from Virginia to Maine

Computer model projection showing the intense storm off of Cape Cod on Jan 29, 2022, with heavy snow and strong winds lashing the coastline. (Weatherbell.com)

Blizzard warnings are in effect for 11 million people from coastal Virginia to eastern Maine as a powerful and potentially historic winter storm is set to slam the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast beginning Friday.

Why it matters: The storm will bring an array of hazards, from zero visibility amid hurricane force wind gusts and heavy snow to coastal flooding that will erode vulnerable beaches and threaten coastal property from the Jersey shore to coastal Massachusetts.

Republican-led Pennsylvania court deems mail-in voting law unconstitutional

Workers count ballots for the 2020 Presidential election at the Philadelphia Convention Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Nov. 3, 2020. Photo: Hannah Yoon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A Republican-led Pennsylvania court on Friday ruled that the state's mail-in voting law is unconstitutional.

Driving the news: Three Republican judges sided with Republican challengers and ruled that no-excuse mail-in voting is prohibited under the state's constitution. Two Democrats on the panel dissented.