Senate Republicans are deeply divided over how — or whether — to address alleged war crimes by Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and his allies, complicating any congressional action on the issue.
Seven of the 11 Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee declined to sign on to a bipartisan letter on the issue spearheaded by Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and ranking member Ben Cardin, D-Md., to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson dated Feb. 22. All 10 Democrats on the panel signed the letter, which urges Tillerson to “ensure Assad, Russia and Iran are made to answer for the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Syria.”
Citing a recent Amnesty International report about mass hangings at a Syrian prison and the release three years ago of thousands of photos of alleged executions, the letter asserts that “sufficient documentation exists to charge Bashar al-Assad with war crimes and crimes against humanity. He has lost legitimacy as Syria’s leader.”
The letter goes on to accuse Russia and Iran of being “complicit” in war crimes.
“As you review US policy toward Russia and participate in the administration’s planning to defeat [the Islamic State], Russia’s role in the tragic deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians must be considered,” Corker and Cardin wrote. “We also ask that you provide an update on the steps the [Donald Trump] administration is taking to document war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Syria, and planned US support to the accountability process that must be part of a political agreement to end the war.”
The dearth of Republican participation in the letter underscores the deep divisions inside the party between a more interventionist, human rights-focused wing and members who agree with Trump that keeping Assad in place and working with Russia to combat terrorism makes more sense. Joining Corker on the letter are Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Todd Young, R-Ind.; and Cory Gardner, R-Colo.
A committee aide told Al-Monitor that the letter has been circulating “for weeks,” leaving little doubt that the seven senators who declined to sign had plenty of time to do so. They include Middle East panel Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho; and Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.; Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.; Rand Paul, R-Ky.; John Barrasso, R-Wyo.; Rob Portman, R-Ohio; and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.
Congress is in recess this week, and none of the seven senators’ offices responded to a request for comment by deadline. Two of the senators, Paul and Flake, have a more libertarian outlook than many of their colleagues and are wary of US interventionism in the Middle East; others, including Risch and Johnson, are hawkish on Iran but have recently tempered their appetite for going after Russia.
It’s also not clear how hard Corker, who will need the support of Trump voters if he follows through with a potential run for governor in 2018, pressed his colleagues to sign on. While Cardin was the first to urge action after the release of the Amnesty International report and has authored or cosponsored two bipartisan sanctions bills on Russia, Corker hasn’t signed on to either one and hasn’t scheduled any markups in the committee.
The House, meanwhile, has so far been more united on the issue.
The lower chamber overwhelmingly passed a resolution last March calling on the Barack Obama administration to press for the creation of a war crimes tribunal at the United Nations to judge the “war crimes” of “the government of Syria, its allies and other parties to the conflict in Syria.” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., and ranking member Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., are expected to shortly reintroduce their Syria sanctions legislation that easily passed the House in November.