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Syria sanctions bill sparks renewed debate over Assad and Christians

The House Foreign Affairs panel voted for new sanctions on anyone helping Bashar al-Assad's regime.
A part of a church is seen amid the damage in the government-controlled area of the Old City of Aleppo, Syria December 10, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki - RTX2UEEY

A key House panel easily voted to slap new sanctions May 3 on Syria, but not before an acrimonious debate over President Bashar al-Assad's role in defending the region's beleaguered Christians.

The bill from House Foreign Affairs ranking member Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., targets anyone who does business with the Assad regime while evaluating the feasibility of a no-fly zone. It cleared the House late last year but not the Senate. 

"If you're taking the side of the Butcher in Damascus over the Syrian people, you're going to get caught up in these sanctions," Engel said in his opening remarks. "That means Iran. That means Russia. The blood of the Syrian people is on their hands as well."

The legislation prompted an objection from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., a longtime defender of authoritarian regimes' crackdown on Islamist extremists. He said he'd heard from more than a dozen Middle East Christian groups over the past couple of years, and only one supported removing Assad.

"Assad is a bad guy, but we know that he's not such a bad guy that Syria under his leadership has been recognized by the Christians throughout the Middle East as the only place they can go and seek refuge and be safe," Rohrabacher said at the hearing. p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 14.0px Calibri; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000} span.s1 {font-kerning: none} According to the UN Refugee agency, 25,000 registered and at least 11,000 unregistered Iraqi refugees have fled to Syria, a "small percentage" of whom are Christian.

Rohrabacher went on to say that US strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq have also killed civilians, prompting a deluge of criticism from members on both sides of the aisle.

"I officially ran out of WTFs during that entire speech," said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., a former Air Force pilot. "To put a moral equivalency of our action in Mosul to what Bashar al-Assad is doing made me honestly want to throw up."

While Rohrabacher may have out-of-the-mainstream views on the committee, his argument that Assad is a bulwark against Sunni extremists taking over the country has some traction and helps explain Congress' reluctance to get more involved in the conflict. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, a committee member who missed the May 3 markup, has said much the same thing.

"The Syrian people recognize and they know that if President Assad is overthrown, then al-Qaeda — or a group like al-Qaeda — that has been killing Christians, killing people simply because of their religion, or because they won’t support their terror activities — they will take charge of all of Syria," Gabbard told CNN after returning from a controversial trip to Syria in January.

Christian groups close to Assad have made the same argument since shortly after the war began in 2011. 

In 2014, the US-based advocacy group In Defense of Christians invited Syrian church leaders for a forum in Washington, prompting criticism from some US lawmakers about their ties to Hezbollah. And earlier this year, a Syrian nun from Damascus who received the International Woman of Courage Award from first lady Melania Trump said Assad was "not a dictator."

"I like our president," Sister Carolin Tahhan Fachakh told reporters at an event sponsored by the US Embassy to the Vatican after returning from the March 29 State Department event. "He's very close to us, as is the first lady. They're very close to the church."

Supporters of Engel's bill countered that Assad is the one who precipitated a civil war that has killed a half million people and displaced more than 6.5 million, including countless Christians. They point out that a number of Syrian groups support the legislation, including Syrian Christians for Peace, the Syria Campaign, the Syrian American Council, the Coalition for a Democratic Syria and the Syrian Emergency Task Force. 

The bill is named after Caesar, the former Syrian army photographer who fled with a treasure trove of photographs that appear to document mass torture and killings in Assad's prisons. A number of the victims have since been identified.

"The Caesar photos that this committee has had the opportunity to see indeed included Christian and Muslim torture victims," said Rep. Bill Keating, D-Mass. "The Assad regime is also responsible for over 60% of destroyed churches in Syria."

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