February 16, 2024 | Policy Brief

Tough Anti-Assad Bill Advances on Bipartisan Vote in House

February 16, 2024 | Policy Brief

Tough Anti-Assad Bill Advances on Bipartisan Vote in House

The House of Representatives approved the Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act of 2023 by an overwhelming vote of 389-32 on Wednesday afternoon, expanding human rights sanctions on the government of Syria and blocking any potential moves by Washington toward rapprochement with Damascus. Whereas the White House has quietly encouraged Arab governments to reconcile with the Syrian regime and refused to enforce sanctions vigorously, Congress has consistently pushed back against this policy of accommodation.

Five years ago, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, named for the Syrian military photographer who fled to Europe with tens of thousands of images of the battered corpses churned out by the torture chambers of the Bashar al-Assad regime. The Caesar Act imposed so-called “secondary sanctions” that apply not just to the regime itself but to all who do business with it. Immediately after the law went into effect in mid-2020, it fueled an aggressive campaign of enforcement by the Departments of State and Treasury.

Upon taking office, the Biden administration pledged to “put human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy” and committed itself to enforcing the Caesar Act, acknowledging its “wide bipartisan support.” The White House reversed course in the summer of 2021, lending its support to proposed energy deals that would have netted tens of millions of dollars for the Assad regime in violation of the Caesar Act. This move signaled to U.S.-aligned Arab governments that they had a green light to normalize their relations with Assad, which they had broken off in response to the mass atrocities Damascus had perpetrated.

Congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle repeatedly conveyed their dissatisfaction with Biden’s resistance to implementing the law. The administration defended itself by insisting the United States would never normalize relations with the Assad regime, a stance it crafted to distract from the White House’s encouragement of normalization by others.

The Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act keeps the Caesar Act in force for an additional eight years, through 2032, and expands the range of individuals subject to Caesar sanctions. Specifically, it targets Syrian lawmakers as well as adult family members of those already under sanctions, a move to prevent evasion of the law by employing relatives as business fronts.

The act also introduces the first-ever sanctions targeting the Assad regime’s wholesale diversion or theft of humanitarian aid intended for the people of Syria. The Biden administration refuses to acknowledge this problem publicly even though senior lawmakers brought it to the president’s attention more than two years ago. Accordingly, the bill requires the secretary of state to report annually on the Assad regime’s manipulation of UN agencies.

The new bill also seeks to block the proposed energy deal with the Assad regime, which has stalled for multiple years but never officially died. The act clarifies the term “transaction” in response to suggestions by administration officials they planned to sidestep the Caesar Act by ruling that proposed energy deals entailed no sanctionable transaction since the agreements would compensate the Assad regime with gas, not cash.

Finally, in accordance with its name, the act establishes as official policy that the U.S. government will not normalize its own relations with Damascus and will oppose normalization by others. To that end, the act requires annual reports from the secretary of state on the government’s efforts to prevent Assad’s diplomatic rehabilitation.

In the Senate, the ranking member of the foreign relations committee has introduced a bill, also named the Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act, whose provisions are nearly identical to those of its House counterpart. If put to a vote, the Senate version would likely receive the same broad bipartisan support. The president should also seize this opportunity to correct his misguided policy toward Syria by directing the full enforcement of sanctions while working with Congress to intensify pressure on Assad.

David Adesnik is research director and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from David and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow David on X @adesnik. Follow FDD on X @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Arab Politics Energy Sanctions and Illicit Finance Syria