Even as the United States plans its military withdrawal from Syria, it has taken a step towards increasing political and economic pressure on the regime of Bashar Al Assad.
The US House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill late on Tuesday night that will allow the White House to sanction foreign persons and entities that engage with the Assad regime or its supporters.
The legislation also requires the Treasury Department to decide within 180 days whether "reasonable grounds exist for concluding that the Central Bank of Syria is a financial institution of primary money laundering concern".
The bill HR 31, officially called the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, was introduced by Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House, Eliott Engel. The bill was named after Cesar, the pseudonym for a photographer with the Syrian military police who documented those killed by the regime in prisons and detention centres for death certificates before defecting to the West in 2013 with a trove of 53,275 images showing the scale of the Assad regime's brutality.
HR 31 gives US President Donald Trump the green light to go after foreign entities and persons that engage in prohibited business with, provide support for or carry out a significant transaction with the Assad regime or senior political figures. The bill also targets companies that work with foreign military contractors, mercenaries or paramilitary organisations “knowingly operating in a military capacity inside Syria for or on behalf of the Government of Syria, the Government of the Russian Federation, or the Government of Iran”.
It requests the US president to impose sanctions on violators within six months that include freezing US assets, blocking or revoking visas and barring entry for those engaged in prohibited transactions.
The sanctions also target anyone who is selling or enabling the sale of Syrian oil and gas, aircraft parts or providing construction and engineering services for the regime.
Coming at a time when some Arab governments are considering resuming economic relations with the Syrian government, HR 31 could give pause for thought.
On a recent call with reporters, a senior US official said "our position [is] that political isolation and political pressure is the appropriate approach to take to try to press the Syrian regime to make the kind of meaningful changes necessary both to settle the Syrian conflict in a peaceful way and also to try to achieve the other US objectives in Syria".
Mr Engel, commenting on the passage of the bill, struck an emotional tone, saying that “nothing can undo the horrors they have had to endure for nearly eight years. Nothing can bring back those who have been lost. But the world owes it to the living and the dead to try to bring this crisis to an end.”
He said the US’s role was to “to push for a political solution that allows the Syrian people to choose their own future… we simply cannot look the other way and allow Assad, Russia and Iran to steamroll over Syria.”
The Republican congressman Michael McCaul called for a “strategy that moves beyond Assad’s debilitating stronghold to encourage negotiations and pursue a political solution to end this conflict.
“This legislation provides the administration much-needed leverage,” he said.
If the Senate approves the same bill, it will be sent to the president’s desk to be signed into law.