Legislation imposing sanctions on Syria’s Assad regime has once again stalled in the Senate. Known as the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, this legislation seeks to limit the regime’s access to various forms of economic support, thereby weakening its ability to commit atrocities against its own people.
The legislation – introduced in the Senate and the House as part of the Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act (S. 1 and H.R. 336) and also in the House as a standalone bill (H.R. 31) – enjoys nearly unanimous bipartisan support. In 2016 and 2017, earlier versions of the bill cleared the House by voice vote, but failed to receive unanimous consent votes in the Senate after Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) placed a hold on them. In November 2018, the White House publicly endorsed the legislation, but Sen. Paul continued to block it.
The Senate has conducted three cloture votes on S. 1 since January 8, but they all failed to meet the 60-vote threshold. Key Democrats cited the government shutdown as the basis for their decision, saying they will not pass any legislation until the shutdown ends. The House has yet to vote on H.R. 336 or H.R. 31 in the current term.
The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act would require the president to impose sanctions on any individual or entity conducting significant transactions with Damascus or providing financial, material, or technological support to the regime or to certain forces aligned with it. The bill specifically mentions the military contractors and paramilitary forces that Moscow and Tehran maintain in Syria to help Assad remain in power.
Specifically, the legislation mandates sanctions in the fields of construction, engineering, natural gas, petroleum, and military-related aircraft. These sectors represent some of the Assad regime’s major financial lifelines. The bill would also require the secretary of the Treasury to determine whether the Central Bank of Syria constitutes a financial institution of primary money laundering concern. If the secretary concludes in the affirmative, then the bank would be subject to additional punitive measures.
Taken together, these sanctions could inflict serious damage on Damascus’ already precarious finances, thereby generating leverage for the United States in future negotiations for a political settlement.
The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act is named in honor of the former Syrian military photographer, known by the pseudonym Caesar, who, in 2014, smuggled out of the country more than 50,000 photographs documenting the torture and execution of more than 10,000 political prisoners. Since then, the photos have captured the world’s attention and have been used as evidence in war crimes prosecutions against the Assad regime.
Yet the impending U.S. withdrawal from Syria, which elicited bipartisan criticism and benefits Iran, has added new urgency to the sanctions. The loss of military leverage will require other forms of coercion in order to affect the strategic calculus of Assad and his partners. The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act promises to do just that.
Tyler Stapleton is deputy director for congressional relations at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power. Follow Tyler on Twitter @Ty_D_Stapleton.