While the Obama administration works to shift its Syria policy away from pressuring the Assad regime, Congress is taking a markedly different approach and working on a large sanctions package meant to punish the regime for mass atrocities and set the stage for the prosecution of war criminals in the Syrian government.
On Thursday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee 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.
“I fled my homeland, putting my life and the lives of my loved ones at risk so we could bear witness to the crimes of Bashar Assad, who has drowned Syria in the blood of innocent civilians,” Caesar said through a translator. “I endangered my life by coming to the U.S., testifying before Congress in hopes for justice and appealing to the moral conscience of free Americans. . . . I now believe that with this bill [Congress has] taken the first step toward justice and accountability in my wounded nation.”
The legislation faces a long and uncertain path. It does have backing from leaders in both parties, including committee leaders Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). Their staffs worked with Syrian American groups in Washington and consulted with the State and Treasury departments when crafting the sanctions measures. There’s some interest on the Senate side but no clear idea of exactly when either chamber might bring the legislation to the floor.
Overall, the bill would impose new sanctions on the Assad regime and its supporters, spur investigations meant to fuel the prosecution of war crimes in Syria, and encourage a process to find a negotiated solution to the crisis. Several members and staffers told me that while they were drafting the legislation, Caesar and the victims in his photos were on their mind.
“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,” Engel said. “American leadership is desperately needed to help bring this conflict to an end.”
Specifically, the bill would require the president to impose new sanctions on anyone who does business with or finances the Syrian government or its military or intelligence services, which definitely includes Russia and Iran. It would also require sanctions on anyone who does business with several Syrian government-controlled industries, including in the airlines, telecommunications and energy sectors.
The president could suspend sanctions if the Syrian government engages in meaningful negotiations to end the war and stops violence against civilians. The bill would also authorize the administration to support collecting and preserving evidence of war crimes in Syria and require the president to report on Syria officials who are complicit in gross violations of human rights.
Lastly, the president would be required to report to Congress on the effectiveness, risks, costs and options for a no-fly zone in Syria, an idea that both Engel and Royce have supported for years.
The Obama administration is right now trying to join forces with Russia in Syria, offering increased military cooperation in exchange for Moscow putting pressure on Assad. The congressional action would seem to work against that policy. But congressional leaders maintain that more has to be done now to protect civilians and that only more pressure on Assad will lead eventually to peace.
“Millions of innocent civilians have been on the receiving end of Assad’s gruesome brutality — brutality the world has rightly recognized as war crimes,” Royce said. He added that the bill “works to cut off Assad’s access to the resources [the Syrian government] uses to annihilate its own people by targeting key backers like Russia and Iran.”
For the past three years, Congress has been told by members of the Obama administration not to pursue Syria sanctions because it would interfere in their delicate diplomacy. But now, with that diplomacy focused on killing more terrorists rather than protecting civilians, Congress is going its own way.