Sanctioning Syria

National defense bill includes new measures pressuring the Assad regime

By Harvest Prude, World Magazine
December 23, 2019

Tucked inside the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020, which President Donald Trump signed Friday after overwhelming support in the Senate, is a measure imposing hefty new sanctions on Syria, Iran, and Russia for war crimes committed during Syria’s civil war.

Originally named the “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019” before being added to the defense bill, the measure says the U.S. government should adopt “coercive economic means” to compel the Syrian government to “halt its murderous attacks on the Syrian people and to support a transition to a government in Syria that respects the rule of law.” It was named after a military police forensic photographer and Syrian defector whose pseudonym is Caesar.

In March 2011, after the government began to crack down on protests after the Arab Spring, authorities tasked Caesar with going to military hospitals to take photos of detainees who had been tortured to death. He secretly began preserving the photos as evidence of war crimes. Horrified by the atrocities, he also decided to defect. After he fled Syria in 2013, he testified before Congress in 2014 about the atrocities he had witnessed and provided more than 50,000 photographs, each documenting victims of starvation and torture: eyes gouged out, limbs severed, marks from beatings, and broken bones.

The sanctions target the Syrian government’s central bank and any entities or countries that provide “financial, material or technological support” to Syria’s military, energy sector, or reconstruction efforts. The sanctions will continue until President Bashar al-Assad’s government frees political prisoners, stops targeting civilians with bombings and other acts of violence, and stops blocking international aid, including to its opposition. Advocates say the legislation could also weaken Russian and Iranian influence in the region.

Lawmakers have introduced the bill every year since 2016, but it failed to pass as standalone legislation. It was on the brink of passing last December, but Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., blocked it.

Advocates didn’t give up.

Erica Hanichak, government relations director of Americans for a Free Syria, one of the primary groups that lobbied for the legislation, told me the Assad regime has been behind the bombings of more than 50 hospitals since April. The regime has also bombed houses of worship and markets. Hanichak called the legislation an opportunity “to actually push the regime to the table to focus on political transitions that will bring Syrian civilians, including Christian minorities, some relief to a yearslong crisis.”

Hanichak noted the United States has a vital national security interest in improving the situation. “It’s clear that what happens in Syria doesn’t stay in Syria, whether it’s the refugee crisis, ISIS, the forward march of Iran … all of that starts in Syria. There isn’t another avenue to address these major U.S. national security interests without going through a better policy on Syria.”

After the Friday signing, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that Caesar had risked his life to seek accountability and justice for the regime’s atrocities. “The Caesar Act will help us do that.”

“Advancing this legislation helps everyone who suffers under Assad’s grip,” Hanichak said. “Whether that’s the Christian faithful or other communities being targeted by bombardment, arbitrary detention, and the rest.”

Mirna Barq, a Syrian who is now president of Syrian Christians for Peace, has been pushing for the international community to address the regime’s atrocities since 2011.

“The effect is going to be tremendously high,” she told me. “It’s going to cripple the regime economically.”

Born in Damascus, Syria, Barq came to the United States as a girl in 1984 but still has relatives in Damascus. As a child she waved to tourists visiting the nearby Hanania Church, believed to be the house of Ananias, who in Acts 9 obeyed God’s instruction in meeting with Saul before he was baptized.

Barq said the restrictions on Christians have grown more severe.

“We used to have all the [Christian] celebrations—Christmas, midnight Mass. Now it brings tears to my eyes every time I think about it,” Barq said, beginning to cry. “We’d walk to the church at night and sing. … Now my father is telling me it’s totally different.”

The diminishing presence of religious minorities is a tragedy, she said: “We were about 30 percent of the population in the ’60s—now we’re about at 3 percent.”

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