WASHINGTON — As Arab states rebuild ties with Syria, a bipartisan group of US lawmakers has introduced sweeping legislation seeking to counter the normalization of President Bashar al-Assad.
First reported by Al-Monitor, the bill led by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) would expand economic sanctions against Assad’s financial backers and cronies. Dubbed the “Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act of 2023,” its release comes days after the Arab League voted to readmit Syria, whose membership was suspended over Assad’s bloody response to his country’s peaceful uprising in 2011.
"Countries choosing to normalize with the unrepentant mass murderer and drug trafficker, Bashar al-Assad, are headed down the wrong path," Wilson said in a statement Thursday.
The bill's seven other co-sponsors include House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and the co-chairs of Congress' Syria caucus, Reps. French Hill (R-Ariz.) and Brendan Boyle (D-Penn.).
Lawmakers hope to force the Biden administration’s hand after two years of what they describe as a passive US policy on Syria, where a decade of fighting has killed hundreds of thousands of people and spawned the world’s worst refugee crisis.
The legislation builds upon the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, a 2019 law that authorizes sanctions on those who do business with the Syrian government. The new bill expands the list of possible Caesar Act targets to include all members of the Syrian parliament, senior members of the ruling Baath Party and those responsible for diverting international humanitarian aid.
It also targets individuals involved in the confiscation of Syrian citizens’ property for “personal gain or political purposes” — a reference to Assad’s controversial Law No. 10, which effectively allows the government to seize the property of displaced Syrians for redevelopment.
The regime is accused of using its vast patronage networks to divert millions of dollars in international humanitarian assistance. Under the new bill, the White House would be required to determine whether the Syria Trust for Development, a charity led by Syria’s first lady Asma al-Assad and key source of patronage, meets the criteria for Caesar sanctions.
The bill also takes aim at a US-backed effort to send Jordanian electricity and Egyptian gas to Lebanon via a transnational pipeline that runs through Syria. The Syrian government would receive in-kind compensation in the form of gas supplies, rather than cash, for its participation in the stalled four-country energy project. The legislation amends the Caesar Act to make “in-kind transactions” with Damascus sanctionable.
Assad has tightened his two-decade grip on power, some 12 years into Syria’s civil war. Aided by Russia and Iran, the regime has won back much of the territory it lost during the conflict, aside from a Kurdish-controlled pocket in the northeast and the rebel-held bastion of Idlib province in the northwest.
The legislation’s release comes as regional states, including some that once funneled weapons to the rebels trying to oust Assad, are resuming economic and diplomatic ties they suspended more than a decade ago. Efforts to normalize gained momentum amid the outpouring of regional sympathy that followed the deadly Feb. 6 earthquakes in Syria and Turkey.
In a major win for Syria’s strongman this week, regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia formally invited Assad to attend the upcoming Arab League summit that will be held in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah on May 19. Riyadh also announced it would be resuming diplomatic operations in the country it long shunned.
As the Arab overtures to Assad continue, the Biden administration has begun calling for countries engaging with his government to put conditions on the table, such as ending the smuggling of Captagon and creating safe conditions for refugee returns.
"Our basic message has been [that] if you’re going to engage with the regime, get something for that,” US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf said during a March Al-Monitor event.
The engagement has so far yielded few, if any, meaningful concessions from the regime. As a precondition for its readmission into the Arab League, Damascus reportedly agreed to take back just 1,000 of the roughly 660,000 Syrian refugees registered in Jordan, The Wall Street Journal reported.
The Biden administration rejects criticism coming from both parties that its rhetoric amounts to tacit approval of Assad’s rehabilitation. US officials say sanctions will remain in place, as will the US policy against normalization, unless a political solution in Syria based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254 is reached.
"We are not going to be in the business of normalizing relations with Assad," Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on Tuesday, adding that the United States and its Arab partners share the same goals with respect to Syria but differ on their approach.
Senior lawmakers in both parties have urged the Biden administration to use the Caesar Act to limit Assad’s access to foreign investment and reconstruction assistance at a time when he desperately needs it to rebuild his war-ravaged country.
To date, the Biden administration has issued one round of Caesar sanctions, which in March targeted Syria’s production and export of Captagon, an illegal amphetamine that serves as a key source of revenue for the regime.
The bill would require the administration to produce an interagency strategy every year for the next five years on how the United States plans to counter foreign governments' outreach to Syria. As part of that report, the administration would need to compile a “full list of transactions, including investments, grants, contracts, or donations” exceeding $50,000 made by individuals in the region.
The bill also bars federal funds from being used to “recognize or otherwise imply, in any manner” US recognition of Assad or any Syrian government led by him.