Congress Prepares to Hit Assad With New Sanctions for War Crimes

By Catie Edmondson, The New York Times

December 16, 2019

WASHINGTON — More than five years ago, an unusual whistle-blower approached Congress: a Syrian military photographer. Fleeing Damascus, he smuggled out tens of thousands of gruesome photographs documenting evidence of war crimes perpetrated by the Syrian government.

Now, citing that photographer’s work, lawmakers are on the verge of moving past years of legislative tussles and dead ends and imposing biting new sanctions on the administration of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria for human rights abuses committed during the country’s eight-year civil war.

A provision known as the Caesar Act — named for the photographer, code-named Caesar — is included in a giant must-pass military policy bill that the Senate is expected to pass on Tuesday, which would clear the way for an expected signature from President Trump.

The Caesar Act would place additional financial restrictions not only on the government but on major parts of Syria’s economy until there is accountability for the victims of war crimes. And it would penalize private companies or governments that do business with the Syrian government — including Russia and Iran, which have been major backers of Mr. Assad.

“The people of Syria have been subjected to brutal treatment,” said Representative Eliot L. Engel of New York, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who helped arrange for the photographer to testify before Congress in 2014. “We have to make sure now that Assad, who is mainly responsible for a lot of the suffering of his own people, is held accountable.”

The photographer worked for the Syrian military police and was assigned to document the bodies of those who died in military prisons from 2011 to 2013. Caesar also worked secretly with the Syrian National Movement — an anti-Assad political group. By 2014, he had smuggled out tens of thousands of photographs depicting civilians who had been starved or tortured to death — eyes gouged out and limbs torn out of sockets — ultimately delivering them to Congress and the United Nations.

All told, the evidence pointed “clearly to a state policy of torture and ill treatment,” according to a report by Human Rights Watch that concluded the Syrian government had committed “a crime against humanity.”

Mr. Assad denied the accusations, but in Congress, lawmakers mobilized.

“You have photographs that document the barbarity of these acts of this torture — that this was institutionalized by so many different security services there,” former Representative Ed Royce, Republican of California, said in an interview. “When that comes out, a photograph is worth a thousand words.”

But despite broad bipartisan support, the bill languished on Capitol Hill, at times becoming collateral damage in political fights that had nothing to do with Syria, and in other instances, falling victim to obscure congressional procedures.

Together, Mr. Royce, then the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Mr. Engel invited Caesar to testify before the committee in 2014 and wrote the Caesar bill. They did so over the objections of the Obama administration, which had argued that imposing sanctions on Syria would endanger its diplomatic outreach.

“They wanted him to come quietly and leave quietly,” said Muna Jondy, the policy chairwoman of Americans for a Free Syria, a nonprofit advocacy group that helped bring Caesar to the United States and lobbied for the sanctions. “We refused.”

Ignoring the pressure from the White House, lawmakers passed the bill in the House in November 2016 — but continued to run into problems in the Senate. When the Senate finally did pass the bill in early 2018, included in a legislative package of Middle Eastern policy, the House refused to take it up because the package included a provision affirming the right of local and state governments to break ties with companies that boycott or divest from Israel.

Even with the backing of the Trump White House, attempts to pass a stand-alone version of the legislation in the Senate repeatedly failed. When Senator Jim Risch, Republican of Idaho and the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, tried to pass the legislation through unanimous consent last December, Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, blocked the effort.

“These sanctions will delay — and possibly prevent — the reconstruction of Syria and the beginning of a healing time,” Mr. Paul said. “Now is the time for diplomacy.”

Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, came out in support of the legislation in October in a Washington Post op-ed article condemning the withdrawal of American forces. His office played a pivotal role in ensuring the legislation was included in this year’s military policy bill, according to activists who lobbied lawmakers to guarantee its passage.

Ms. Jondy, a former member of the Syrian National Movement and the Syrian Constitutional Committee, a group authorized by the United Nations that seeks to reconcile rival sides in Syria’s war, met with Syrian government officials in November in Geneva, in an attempt to draft a new governing document. At that meeting, Ms. Jondy said, it was clear that Syrian officials were nervous about the possible imposition of the Caesar sanctions.

“We know sanctions are hurting,” she said. “We’re going to try to give you more.”

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