In its first full day back in session, the Republican-led House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill to sanction the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well as its Russian and Iranian enablers, for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The move puts pressure on President-elect Donald Trump to decide whether saving Syrian civilians and standing up to mass atrocities — as opposed to partnering with Russian President Vladimir Putin — are things he believes in.
During the presidential campaign, Trump said several incorrect or incoherent things about the ongoing crisis in Syria, including that the city of Aleppo has already fallen to the regime and its military partners. In fact, Russia began another brutal air bombing campaign against oppositions force in eastern Aleppo on Tuesday, one day after Trump spoke with Putin and the two leaders agreed to work for “a settlement for the crisis in Syria,” according to the Kremlin’s readout of the call.
One thing Trump has consistently said about Syria is that while Assad is a “bad guy,” Trump doesn’t think the United States should arm the Syrian rebels or pressure Assad to step down. Trump also said he disagrees with Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who said the United States should consider bombing the Assad regime to prevent the slaughter of civilians in Aleppo.
Like the Trump team, Congress is also split on whether the U.S. should use military force inside Syria. But the House’s vote Tuesday to pass the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act under a suspension of the rules shows there is bipartisan consensus on the need to sanction the Assad regime for war crimes as well as the countries that are aiding the Syrian government’s atrocities. The bill was named for a Syrian defector who presented the world with 55,000 pictures documenting Assad’s mass torture and murder of thousands of civilians in custody,
“Something needs to jolt this crisis out of its bloody status quo. This bill would give the administration more tools to do so,” the bill’s sponsor, Eliot Engel (N.Y.), ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on the House floor. “We want to go after the things driving the war machine: money, airplanes, spare parts, oil. The military supply chain. And yes, we want to go after Assad’s partners in violence.”
Russia, Iran and Hezbollah have all contributed to the war crimes ongoing in Syria, Engel said. Russian planes have targeted schools, hospitals and public spaces. “Under this legislation, if you’re acting as a lifeline to the Assad regime, you risk getting caught up in the net of our sanctions,” he said.
Engel also referred to the fact that the Obama administration worked secretly to delay House consideration of the bill in August and then worked secretly to weaken the bill’s sanctions on countries that enable the regime in October. The final version of the bill keeps intact sanctions that would apply to Russia and Iran but provides for exemptions for humanitarian aid.
“Republicans and Democrats recognize the need to isolate the Assad regime for its continued atrocities against the Syrian people,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said in a Tuesday statement. “I’m glad the White House has stopped blocking these critical sanctions, which are a necessary response to Assad’s crimes against humanity.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who worked to approve the bill in committee in July, said on the floor Tuesday that the Obama administration failed to use the tools at its disposal to stop the suffering of innocent civilians in Syria.
“America has been sitting back and watching these atrocities for far too long. Vital U.S. national security interests are at stake,” he said. “For there to be peace in Syria, the parties must come together. And as long as Assad and his backers can slaughter the people of Syria with no consequences – there is no hope for peace.”
If the Senate takes up the Caesar bill this year and passes it, the incoming Trump administration will be put to the test right away: Will the United States under President Trump stand for stopping war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria or will it turn a deaf ear to the victims of mass atrocities crying out for help?
The latter choice would not only prolong the suffering of Syrian civilians but also cede the moral high ground and American credibility on human rights.