The legislation is named after the Syrian defector known by the pseudonym “Caesar,” who took more than 55,000 photos documenting the torture and death of prisoners in government jails while working as a photographer for the authorities. It has already passed the House twice; Wednesday was the first time a Senate panel considered the legislation, approving it by voice vote.
The Senate has resisted taking any additional actions to impose sanctions on Russia, despite pressure to do so from across the political spectrum after the Helsinki summit, in which President Trump suggested he might believe Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials of Russian election interference, over the findings of the U.S. intelligence community.
Leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations and Banking committees promised instead to do a careful review of how to counter Russia’s aggressive activities with punitive measures, including sanctions. Those sessions have taken place over the past few weeks and have included a hearing on Russia’s support of the Syrian government's war effort.
Trump has resisted personally criticizing Russia harshly over its alleged election interference, though this month he signed an executive order extending sanctions to nearly three dozen Russian individuals and entities affiliated with the defense and intelligence sectors that have played a role in election interference. But on Syria, his rhetoric has been harsher.
Despite his skepticism of the United States’ mission in Syria, Trump has ordered airstrikes against the Assad regime twice over chemical-weapons attacks, and his administration has promised to keep U.S. forces in Syria until Iranian-backed armed groups cease operating there. This week at the United Nations, Trump told the Security Council that the Assad regime’s “butchery is enabled by Russia and Iran.”
It is unclear whether that creates more political incentive for the full Senate to vote on the legislation, though it is unlikely that the body will take up the bill in advance of the midterm elections.
The legislation requires the president to submit reports analyzing the effectiveness of potential no-fly and safe zones in Syria and allows the president to temporarily suspend the sanctions if the Syrian government has stopped attacking its people, and if Russian and Iranian forces are no longer targeting civilians, including hospitals and schools.