Congress introduces Assad Anti-Normalisation Act following Arab League's Syria decision

Bill also takes aim at Washington's approval of the Arab Gas Pipeline

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, right, receives a delegation representing various Arab governments in Damascus in February this year. AP
Powered by automated translation

A bipartisan group in the US House of Representatives on Thursday introduced a bill that would codify Washington's opposition to normalising relations with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

The legislation was introduced on the heels of the Arab League's decision to reintegrate Syria into the bloc.

The Assad Anti-Normalisation Act would prohibit the US from “recognising or normalising relations with any government of Syria that is led by Bashar Al Assad”.

Joe Wilson, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, spearheaded the bill after the Arab League formally readmitted Syria to the body, in a further sign of the region's softening stance towards Damascus.

“The Assad regime is illegitimate and poses a threat to peace and prosperity in the region,” Mr Wilson said in a statement announcing the bill.

“Support for a free and democratic Syria remains strong and I am grateful to introduce this bipartisan legislation to hold the Assad regime accountable for its crimes.”

Aboul Gheit, Secretary General of the Arab League, told The National this week that Syria's readmission was a “step in a process” of normalising ties and “not the end of the journey”.

The bill moves to expand the Caesar Act, which issued a tough round of sanctions on the Assad regime, to include those providing support to the Syrian People’s Assembly and the Baath Party.

Mohammed Alaa Ghanem — policy chief at the Syria American Council, an organisation that has endorsed the bill — told The National this development is particularly significant.

“Usually [the Syrians facing sanctions] are fat cats, businessmen or security officials who change hats, put on a suit and tie, and become members,” he told The National.

“So this sends a very chilling message — if you're working for Bashar Al Assad, aiding and abetting the crimes in Syria, you're going to be targeted.”

The proposed Caesar Act expansion would also block Washington's approval of the US-backed Arab Gas Pipeline through a provision that expands sanctions to include “significant transactions” involving natural gas, electricity or other energy-related transactions.

It would also require an inter-agency strategy and annual report to Congress to counter the normalisation of relations with the Assad regime.

Mr Ghanem added that he is excited about a provision that “would protect the housing and property rights of refugees, because it would target anyone that engages in the seizure and misappropriation of assets … of Syrians, including real estate”.

“As someone who owns, or owned property in Syria, the regime seized my properties … so that's something very, very good,” Mr Ghanem said.

“This bill will pressure the Assad regime to account for its mass murder and other war crimes including chemical weapons,” former ambassador and special representative to Syria James Jeffrey said in a statement.

It will also “advance the fight against ISIS, support the return of refugees and internally displaced people, and block a geostrategic triumph by Assad, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and the IRGC [Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps],” he added.

President Joe Biden's administration has maintained a broad policy against normalising relations with the regime.

Following the Arab League's decision, Mr Biden on Monday announced the continuation of an executive order that declared a US national emergency with respect to Syria.

“The regime's brutality and repression of the Syrian people, who have called for freedom and a representative government, not only endangers the Syrian people themselves, but also generates instability throughout the region,” Mr Biden wrote in a letter to Congress.

But after Jordan-hosted talks with Arab foreign ministers in anticipation of Syria's return to the Arab League, the White House told The National it was “encouraged to see the joint communique mention many priorities that we and our partners share”.

That comment followed senior administration official Barbara Leaf taking a softer tone on normalisation as well.

“Our approach on that score is that make sure to get something for that engagement,” she said in late March.

Mr Ghanem acknowledged that getting the sweeping new bill through Congress and signed into law is “not going to be a walk in the park”, but he expressed cautious optimism.

“There were moments in time when we thought that [the Caesar Act] wasn't going to pass, and then it passed. So we're hopeful,” he said.

Updated: May 11, 2023, 5:19 PM