The United States House of Representatives passed a bill on Wednesday that issues additional sanctions against supporters of Syria’s Assad regime, and those providing arms for the regime.
“This bill is a big step in the right direction,” Phillippe Nassif, executive director of the group In Defense of Christians, told CNA.
The House passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act May 17, issuing additional sanctions on the Assad regime and its “backers,” especially human rights violators and those involved in the trade of weapons or weapons parts with the regime. Those supporters could include Russia and Iran, international allies of Assad.
The Syrian civil war is now in its sixth year, and over 400,000 have died, with over 11 million displaced from their homes, including 5 million registered refugees. Civilian witnesses have given testimonies to the carnage – hospitals bombed, chorine gas bombs unleashed, and starvation are only some of the atrocities that have been inflicted.
Christian leaders in the area have denounced the trafficking of weapons into Syria as something which helps the conflict continue. Wednesday’s bill at least claims to target those supporting the Assad regime’s air force and those doing business with the regime.
The bill also directs the State Department to assist those investigating war crimes in Syria.
Pope Francis has repeatedly denounced the arms trade. In his September 2015 speech to the U.S. Congress, he emphasized that Christians must ask “why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society?”
“Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade,” he said.
Last July, in a video message promoting peace in Syria, he lamented that “while the people suffer, incredible quantities of money are being spent to supply weapons to fighters.”
Some of the arms suppliers “are also among those that talk of peace,” he said. “How can you believe in someone who caresses you with the right hand and strikes you with the left hand?”
House leaders cited recent atrocities committed by the Assad regime as a further motive of the sanctions – the deaths of over 90 civilians by sarin gas back in April after pro-government forces bombed a neighborhood in Idlib, and the Saydnaya military prison run by the Assad regime where Amnesty International estimates that up to 13,000 prisoners were executed in five years, along with repeated torture.
These atrocities, along with the repeated bombings of hospitals and killing of humanitarian workers and obstructing aid convoys trying to reach vulnerable populations, call for action, members of Congress insisted.
“If you’re supporting this murder – if you’re enabling the Butcher in Damascus to continue waging that sort of violence against his own people – you’re going to face consequences,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, stated on the House Floor on Wednesday.
“This bill would sanction anyone who provides material support for the Assad regime,” he explained. “We want to go after the actual hardware that keeps his war machine running: the planes and bombs that terrorize the Syrian people, and the spare parts and oil that keep everything running.”
Supporters of the bill expressed their hope that sanctions would drive parties toward international peace negotiations.
“IDC hopes that these steps will result in the swift resolution of the conflict, the substantial defeat of ISIS, Al Qaeda affiliates, and Iranian backed extremist groups in Syria and the Middle East; promotes stability in Lebanon and Jordan; and end the human rights catastrophe, now in its sixth year,” Nassif stated.
“For there to be peace in Syria, the parties must come together,” Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, stated. “And as long as Assad and his backers can slaughter the people of Syria with no consequences, there is no hope for peace.”
For sanctions to really work, however, they must be enforced and the perpetrators who are being targeted must be publicly shamed.
The bill does allow the president the flexibility to suspend the sanctions if serious peace negotiations are taking place and the violence against civilians in Syria has stopped. It also directs the president to report to Congress on the names of all those responsible for serious human rights abuses.
However, the actions could also show hypocrisy from the U.S., some claim, as it is set to approve a $300 billion arms deal with ally Saudi Arabia which, according to Hillary Clinton’s emails unearthed by WikiLeaks, has covertly funded the Islamic State in the past.