As the White House moves towards deeper coordination with the Russian military and intelligence agencies backing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, members of Congress are being urged to support bipartisan legislation that would impose new sanctions upon the Damascus regime.
Writing in The Washington Post, Josh Rogin reports:
On Thursday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) will mark up bipartisan legislation called the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which gets its title from the code name of a Syrian military photographer who was forced to document the torture and murder of thousands of Syrian civilians in the custody of the Assad regime. Caesar escaped from Syria in 2013 and brought with him 55,000 images that the State Department and FBI have verified as evidence of mass torture and mass murder by the Syrian army and intelligence forces.
Caesar testified before the committee in 2014 and pleaded for the U.S. government to do more to protect civilians in Syria, including the thousands of innocent civilians still in President Bashar al-Assad’s jails. In a statement to me this week, he said he was “disillusioned and depressed” because of the lack of international action to stop the atrocities shown in the evidence he risked his life to bring to the world’s attention.
The sanctions package has the backing of HFAC leaders Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). “When Caesar appeared before our committee, we saw the brutal, unvarnished images of Assad’s abuses against the Syrian people, and we know that type of violence continues unabated. American leadership is desperately needed to help bring this conflict to an end,” Engel told the Post.
If passed, the legislation would impose fresh sanctions on entities conducting business with the Assad regime and its military and intelligence agencies. A number of regime-controlled industries, including in the airline, telecommunications and energy sectors, would also be targeted. The legislation would also require the U.S president to report to Congress on the prospects for a no-fly zone in Syria, a move which both Engel and Royce have long supported.
“As the Obama Administration explores increased cooperation with Assad’s patrons, particularly Iran and Russia, this bill shows that the representatives of the American people still believe that the United States should stand up to war criminals,” Evan Barrett, Deputy Director of the Syria Emergency Task Force, which has been assisting with the legislation, told The Tower. “For five years since the original executive order that sanctions some Syrian government officials, there’s been no indication from the U.S. that those responsible for the worst atrocities in Syria will ever face accountability. This bill highlights the enablers of these crimes and sends a message that we know who’s responsible.”
While the bill is unlikely to be debated before Congress returns in September, supporters of the new sanctions package are eager in the interim for a public conversation that highlights alternatives to the Obama admnistration’s Syria policy.
The United Nations formally accused Assad in February of carrying out the “extermination” of prisoners. The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a resolution in March calling for a tribunal to prosecute Assad and his allies for war crimes. The non-binding measure, which passed 392-3, denounced a litany of crimes perpetrated by the Assad regime, including having committed “widespread torture and rape, employed starvation as a weapon of war, and massacred civilians, including through the use of chemical weapons, cluster munitions, and barrel bombs;… [and] subjected nearly 1 million civilians to devastating sieges and manipulated the delivery of humanitarian aid for its own gain, thereby weaponizing starvation against populations.” It notably cast blame on the Assad regime, as well as “the Russian Federation, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Iran’s terrorist proxies including Hezbollah,” for killing the “vast majority” of Syrian civilians who have died in the conflict.
The Syrian Center for Policy Research calculated in February that at least 470,000 people have died as a result of the Syrian Civil War. The United Nations stopped counting the death toll in 2014, when it had reached 250,000.