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Opinion Sanctioning Assad is the very least the United States can do in Syria

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The Syrian government is on the verge of total victory in its civil war and is planning for what comes next. But the Syrian regime is still committing atrocities against civilians — and they continue to hold at least two American citizens. In the absence of a real U.S. strategy, Congress has a chance to act.

What can be done? The Trump administration’s Syria policy is a disaster. After President Trump announced the total pullout of U.S. troops in a tweet in December, the defense secretary resigned, as did the official in charge of the anti-Islamic State coalition, who said Trump was giving the terrorist group “new life.” The national security adviser was publicly rebuked by the president when he tried to set conditions for the withdrawal, and the secretary of state laughably claims nothing has changed.

“Believe me there’s no plan for what’s coming next,” Brett McGurk, the former U.S. envoy to the global coalition to combat the Islamic State, told “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “Right now we do not have a plan.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. military is left to mitigate the damage of Trump’s recklessness while completing a dangerous withdrawal at the same time. The results have already been deadly for U.S. troops. Our partners — not to mention thousands of Syrian civilians — will suffer greatly because of America’s dishonorable actions.

But there’s one thing Congress can do: Pass legislation to drastically increase sanctions on the Bashar al-Assad regime and those who do business with it. The House on Tuesday passed the Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act of 2019. Now the Senate must follow.

“The world has failed the Syrian people. Nothing can undo the horrors they have had to endure for nearly eight years. Nothing can bring back those who have been lost,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) said on the House floor. “We simply cannot look the other way and allow Assad Russia, and Iran to steamroll over Syria.”

The legislation, which the House passed twice in previous sessions, would require the Trump administration to sanction anyone who does business with the Syrian government, its security services or its central bank. The bill would also sanction anyone involved with Syrian government-related construction projects or Syria’s state-controlled airline or energy industries.

The bill is named after “Caesar,” a Syrian military defector who escaped with more than 55,000 images that the FBI has verified as evidence of the Assad regime’s torture and murder of more than 11,000 civilians held in its custody. The Caesar file represents a fraction of the Assad regime’s crimes against humanity, which include starvation sieges, chemical weapons attacks on civilians and much more.

But the legislation is not just about war crimes. The idea is to give Trump some leverage when dealing with the Assad regime, Russia or even Iran as the Syria tragedy rolls forward. Trump could waive the sanctions on a case-by-case basis under the bill. If peace negotiations were progressing or regime attacks on civilians ceased, the sanctions could be suspended.

The House passed the bill by unanimous consent. Even Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who voted against a nonbinding resolution condemning Assad’s war crimes in 2016, didn’t object this time around. Today, nobody could think this is “thinly-veiled call for no fly zone & war to oust Syrian gov,” as Gabbard said at that time.

Trump is getting the United States out of Syria. The president has made it clear he does not believe there is any U.S. national interest there whatsoever.

“We’re talking about sand and death. That’s what we’re talking about,” Trump said at a televised Cabinet meeting Jan. 2. “We’re not talking about vast wealth. We’re talking about sand and death.”

Nonetheless, there is a broad bipartisan congressional consensus that the United States does have interests in Syria. The fight against Islamic State is not over and can’t be entrusted to Turkey and Russia. If Assad and Iran are allowed to take over currently liberated areas, more death, extremism, refugees and regional instability will surely follow.

Sanctions are not a panacea. It’s possible they don’t present enough leverage to force Assad, Russia and Iran change their strategic calculus. But it’s all we have left to try to exert influence there. The European Union on Monday sanctioned 11 individuals and five companies for doing business with the Assad regime. They are trying to enforce the principle that the reconstruction of Syria should begin with political progress and an end to the atrocities.

The White House has already issued a statement of support for the Caesar bill. The Senate should take a break from show votes on the shutdown and vote to remind Assad and the rest of the world that the United States still cares about what happens in Syria. It’s literally the least we can do.

“Passing the Caesar bill will give renewed hope to an oppressed and downtrodden people that our revolution and justice for our victims is not dead,” Caesar told me. “That our yearning for freedom will continue as long as there are free men and women in the world like the American people and their Congress.”

Read more:

Brett McGurk: Trump said he beat ISIS. Instead, he’s giving it new life.

Josh Rogin: Syrian defector who documented Assad’s atrocities returning to Washington

Robert S. Ford: Trump’s Syria decision was essentially correct. Here’s how he can make the most of it.

Keith Kellogg: President Trump led us to success in Syria. Now it’s time to leave.

David Ignatius: What Trump’s Syria decision means on the front lines of the fight against the Islamic State