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Opinion The United States is about to sanction Assad, Russia and Iran for Syrian war crimes

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during an interview in Damascus, Syria, on Feb. 10, 2015. (AP)

More than three years after it was first introduced, landmark legislation that would provide for U.S. sanctions against the Assad regime, Russia and Iran for past and ongoing war crimes in Syria is on the verge of finally passing in Congress. Expected to become law, the “Caesar Bill” could offer not only for some justice and accountability for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s victims — it could also give the United States leverage in seeking a political solution to the Syrian war.

President Trump is expected to sign the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020 after Congress passes it, as early as this week. With bipartisan and bicameral agreement, Congress added to it the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019, which authorizes sanctions on top Syrian government officials, military leaders and anyone else responsible for more than eight years of Assad’s mass atrocities, war crimes against innocent civilians and crimes against humanity.

The bill also would extend sanctions to several major sectors of Syria’s state-driven economy and to any government or private entity that aids Syria’s military or contributes to the reconstruction of Syria — until there’s accountability and justice for Assad’s victims.

That means the Russian military, its contract mercenaries in Syria and its energy companies seeking Syrian oil business could be sanctioned if they helped the Damascus regime in any way — and the same goes for Iranian paramilitary forces assisting Assad. The Trump administration is on record in support of the legislation and is expected to enforce it.

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The legislation is named after “Caesar,” the pseudonym of a Syrian military photographer who defected in 2013 and released to the world more than 55,000 photographs of the torture and murder of thousands of civilians in Assad’s notorious prisons. The photos, which have been verified by the FBI and shown around the world, represent just a small portion of what then-State Department War Crimes Ambassador Stephen Rapp called the worst “machinery of cruel death” since the Nazis.

Caesar, who has visited Washington four times to plead for justice and attention for the victims, told me today he cried tears of hope and optimism when he heard the bill is about to become law.

“After more than eight years, the victims of Assad’s brutality and their families are one step closer to justice and accountability,” he said. “I am grateful to the people of the United States represented by Congress for embodying the American values of freedom and human rights.”

The bill’s path was a long one. Passed three times in the House, including once over the objections of the Obama White House, it never received a stand-alone vote on the Senate floor. Now, as Assad retakes large parts of Syria and the Trump administration Syria policy remains an incoherent mess, this legislation has some chance of pressuring Assad and his partners to stop their war crimes, which include barrel bombing of civilians, starvation sieges, targeting schools and hospitals, and much more.

“The Syrian people have waited too long for relief from Assad’s brutality. This legislation that we’ve been trying to get across the finish line for years could provide some measure of that relief,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) told me. “The world’s collective failure to act over eight years of violence is a black mark on history. Nothing can undo the suffering and loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, but we need to do all we can to make it right.”

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a longtime supporter of the bill, told me Russia and Iran will now face increased costs for their direct involvement in Assad’s war crimes.

“While these sanctions will not end the pain and sorrow the war in Syria has caused, nor the many lives lost, the message of the Caesar Bill is clear,” he said. “We will not turn a blind eye to these atrocities, and we will make sure those responsible will pay for their crimes.”

Behind the scenes, the legislation was driven in large part by a Syrian-American nongovernmental organization called the Syrian Emergency Task Force. Its executive director, Mouaz Moustafa, told me the Caesar Bill is a step toward accountability, justice and peace in Syria — even if the war crimes continue.

“As we speak, Assad is committing massacres on a daily basis in Idlib province,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are languishing in his sadistic dungeons. What’s happening in Syria is a ‘Never Again’ moment that is being ignored by the world. But what is heartening is that Republicans, Democrats and the administration have come together to focus on protecting civilians.”

The legislation also targets any international actor that tries to help Assad rebuild, until or unless he stops slaughtering his own people. That means the United States could sanction any international company that aids Syria’s energy, aircraft, construction or engineering sectors, as well as anyone who loans the regime money. That’s meant to deny Assad the means to rebuild and deny others the ability to profit from it.

“The world cannot forget Assad’s crimes and must not normalize relations with his regime,” Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told me. “The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act ensures that Assad will be treated like the pariah he is.”

And if the administration were inclined, it could use these new sanctions to also pressure Assad, Russia and Iran to negotiate in good faith toward a political solution that provides basic dignity for the Syrian people. Despite eight years of failed U.S. policy in Syria, standing up against mass atrocities is still both our strategic interest and our moral obligation.

Read more:

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