For anyone looking to prevent Syria’s Bashar al-Assad from securing a final victory in the civil war he started in 2011, it has been a dispiriting few months.
President Donald Trump abruptly ordered a full withdrawal of U.S. forces in northern Syria in October, and then gave a green light to Turkey to occupy the territory.
Even though the U.S. sent troops back to guard Syria’s oil fields a few days later, the president’s declaration that he was ending the "endless war" in Syria was a boon to Syria’s strongman and his Russian and Iranian patrons.
Now there is a sliver of good news. New sanctions on Assad’s regime, along with Russian and Iranian entities that have assisted its war on Syrian civilians, are set to become law as part of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.
That counts as a victory for a coalition of human-rights activists, Syrian-Americans and members of Congress from both parties who have pushed for these sanctions for years.
The sanctions provision, initially known as the Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act, is named after a Syrian defector who smuggled thousands of photographs out of the country in 2013, exposing the regime’s mass killings, torture and other war crimes.
His code name was Caesar. (A 2016 New Yorker profile details how he did it, using flash drives that he hid in his socks.) The photos are stomach-turning evidence that Assad’s prisons and hospitals were abattoirs, where prisoners were hung by their wrists, beaten, burned and murdered.
It would take a year for Caesar to finally tell his story before Congress, and when he did he had to wear a disguise. His 2014 testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee spurred a handful of lawmakers from both parties to take action, eventually leading to the so-called Caesar bill.
The provision has two key components. It would place financial sanctions on Syrian leaders and organizations as well as any Russian or Iranian individuals or entities that have engaged in significant transactions with the regime.
The point is to make any business with Assad’s government toxic until it accounts for its war crimes against civilians.
The bill would also penalize the regime and its foreign backers who are engaged in reconstruction in regime-controlled areas. This may seem counterproductive. But reconstruction in areas controlled by Assad’s forces enables ethnic cleansing.
In these areas, says Mouaz Moustafa, the executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force and Caesar’s translator during his 2014 hearing, Syrian residents are being forced to leave, replaced by people loyal to Assad and Iran.
In light of Assad’s atrocities, one might think it would have been fairly easy for the Caesar bill to become law. But it took five years. Initially President Barack Obama’s administration was nervous that sanctioning Iranian and Russian entities and individuals would make it harder to negotiate a cease-fire and a political resolution to the conflict.
More recently the roadblock was Senator Rand Paul, a libertarian Republican who opposes an interventionist foreign policy.
Ironically, the Caesar bill got the momentum it needed in October — after Trump announced the Syria withdrawal he would later reverse. That prompted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to announce his support for the bill. His office later worked to make sure the legislation was included in the National Defense Authorization Act.
On Tuesday that legislation passed the Senate, following its passage last week in the House. Trump is expected to sign it into law. It is too late to stop the atrocities documented by Caesar, and military intervention is no longer a politically viable option. But at least the law will put the Assad regime on notice for its crimes.
As Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., told me, "We can use the power of the American economy to hold the regime accountable."
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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