'Second lease of life for Caesar': US House passes Assad Anti-Normalisation Act

Bill expands the Caesar Act, which included a tough round of sanctions on the Syrian regime

Syria's President Bashar Al Assad at the Arab-Islamic Extraordinary Summit on Gaza in Riyadh. Photo: SPA
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The US House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a bill that effectively renews the Caesar Act sanctions and blocks the US from “recognising or normalising relations with any government of Syria that is led by Bashar Al Assad”.

The Assad Anti-Normalisation Act passed the House in a 389-32 vote.

“With this bill, Congress is sending a message that it remains committed to holding Assad and his backers accountable and ensuring justice for the Syrian people, in the face of creeping normalisation with this war criminal,” chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee Mike McCaul told The National ahead of the vote.

Mohammed Alaa Ghanem – policy chief at the Syria American Council, which has lobbied for the bill – told The National the act is “a second lease on life for Caesar”, because it extends the sweeping 2019 sanctions, set to expire this year, until 2032.

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

Extending Caesar, Mr Ghanem adds “will also help the United Nations in negotiations because if Caesar is allowed to expire, then it will be a whole new ballgame in Syria and nothing would keep reconstruction in regime controlled areas under the supervision of the regime from happening”.

In addition, the bill requires developing an inter-agency strategy and an annual report to Congress to counter normalisation with the Assad regime.

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

The bipartisan bill, spearheaded by Republican chairman of the Middle East foreign affairs subcommittee Joe Wilson, picked up three additional last-minute co-sponsors on Tuesday, The National confirmed.

Its 52 co-sponsors include members from across political factions and party lines, including progressive Democrats, far-right Freedom Caucus members and moderates.

Syria's Bashar Al Assad gives rare interview

Syria's Bashar Al Assad gives rare interview

Brendan Boyle, a Democratic sponsor of the bill and member of the House Syria Caucus, said in a statement: “There should never be any reason to justify normalising relations with a government that is responsible for the murder of over 600,000 men, women, and children. Tonight, the United States sent a clear and resounding message to Assad and his backers.”

That scope of support shows that standing against the Assad regime “is really a matter of consensus”, Mr Ghanem added.

This bill sends a message that the resolution to the conflict in Syria can only come through a political agreement where Assad is pushed to the sidelines, because as far as the most politically significant country in the world, largest military in the world, largest economy in the world, this guy is toast,” Mr Ghanem said.

The Biden administration has maintained a broad policy against normalising relations with the regime, but the White House's tone has shifted in recent years.

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 last year.

The Assad Anti-Normalisation Act now goes to the Senate, where “negotiations [are] under way” over the bill, as uncertainties over its support in the upper chamber loom.

Mr Ghanem says he hopes the overwhelming support in the House “will definitely put more pressure on the Senate to move forward with this”.

Updated: February 15, 2024, 7:40 AM