CATF Reports Jul. 28, 2016, 10:01am


The House Foreign Affairs Committee marked up the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2016 on July 14th, a new bipartisan legislation that would impose new sanctions on Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its supporters. With the fight against ISIS and instability in the region gaining momentum, White House diplomacy efforts have been geared towards better coordination efforts with Russian military against the common regional terrorist threats, such as ISIL and the al-Nusra Front, as well as friendlier relations with Iran to destabilize its nuclear threats. Both Russia and Iran, however, have been pro-Assad and backed the current regime in the midst of Syria’s Civil War. Thus, if this bill were to pass, it would complicate an already delicate balance of U.S. relations in the region.  

The bill and its name were inspired by a congressional testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2014 from a Syrian military photographer under the code name of Caesar who secretly worked with the Syrian National movement. His job required him to document killed detainees by photographing their bodies at two military hospitals in Damascus. He smuggled some 55,000 images out of Syria to expose the atrocities that occurred to Syrian detainees inside Syria’s prisons under the custody of the Assad regime. When he escaped his country in 2013, he brought the photos with him. These images have been used by the U.S. State Department and the FBI as evidence of mass murder and torture by the Syrian intelligence forces and army. In his testimony, Caesar emphasized that he wanted the world to bear witness to the crimes of Assad, and urged the U.S. government to do more to protect Syrian civilians, especially those still in jail. In the initial stages of the Syrian Civil war, the Assad regime has been accused of numerous war crimes such as widespread torture and rape, and the use of starvation, cluster munitions, sieges, and barrel bombs as weapons on civilians. The regime was also formally accused of the extermination of prisoners as indicated by the United Nations.

Among these atrocities is also Syria’s use of chemical and biological weapons including the harmful nerve agent sarin against rebels, and the use of chlorine gas against Syrian villages. It has been nearly 3 years since Syria gave in to international pressure to hand over its supply of chemical weapons to the Hague-based chemical weapon’s watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), through the U.S. and Russian brokered deal in September of 2013. However, information has surfaced from OPCW teams and U.S. officials that Syria has at least 4 chemical warfare agents that have gone unreported. To make matters difficult, Russia is suspected of providing Syria with chemical agents in April of 2016.

These discoveries complicate the U.S. approach in Syria, with Congress pushing for stricter anti-Assad measures, and the White House siding with Russia in the fight against ISIS. In addition to imposing new sanctions on the Assad regime, the recent Caesar Syria Civilian Protection bill would include requiring the president to impose new sanctions on anyone who conducts business or funds the Syrian government, its military, or its intelligence. It also requires sanctions against firms who conduct business with Syrian government-controlled industries, such as the airline, telecommunications, and energy industries. While the White House has been working hard to amend relations with Russia and Iran, the passing of the bill would definitely implicate the two countries, both of which openly fall under these categories. Additionally, the president would be required to report the costs and risks associated with a no-fly zone in Syria to Congress, an issue that has been debated not only by the current administration, but also by U.S. presidential hopeful, Hillary Clinton, and German chancellor, Angela Merkel.

On the other hand, the president could suspend these sanctions if Syria’s government engages in dialogue to end the civil war and its violence against civilians. The bill would also allow the U.S. administration to support collecting and preserving evidence of war crimes in Syria.

Thus, the bill would seemingly work against existing U.S. foreign policy. However, members of congress insist that there should be more pressure to counter Assad’s crimes in order to restore peace. Congressman Royce claimed that this legislation “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.” It’s no secret that the White House and Congress have been at odds for various issues of foreign policy in the region. However, if such a bill were passed, it would definitely threaten the delicate diplomatic stance of the U.S. in the region, especially with trends of Middle East state actors sponsoring terrorism.

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