The Israel Lobby’s Persistent Role in Sanctioning Syria – Hekmat Aboukhater 2/22/24


On February 13, the U.S. House of Representatives deliberated on Resolution 3202, the “Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act of 2023.” The following day, the House passed the bill with a 389 to 32 bipartisan majority. Now, the bill moves on to the Senate, where it will most likely pass with similar bipartisan support and a ringing endorsement from President Biden once it reaches his desk.

The bill was pushed with a veneer of Syrian support represented by the advocacy of the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF) and the Syrian American Council (SAC) – Syrian opposition groups in the U.S. While its aims seem, at face value, to focus on humanitarian issues and a quest for accountability, the reality is much more complicated.

The Bill’s Stated Aims

The bill was presented to the public as a tool for accountability purely targeting the Assad-led government of Syria and any of its in-country partners. The bill purports to achieve this by “Prohibiting any U.S. official action to normalize relations with any Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad, “Strengthening the human rights sanctions levied on Syria,” and” Examining the Assad government’s manipulation of the United Nations.”

In keeping with the polite presentation of the bill, Moaz Moustafa, SETF Executive Director, said: “We are proud to see legislation that holds the Assad regime and those normalizing with war criminals accountable” as a response to the passage of the bill.

Similarly, on the House floor, House Foreign Relations Committee chairman Mike McCaul announced that “Congress is sending a message that it remains committed to justice for the Syrian people.”

The Bill’s True Aims

While the stated aims seem to be focused on accountability and human rights, the real thrust of the bill was conveniently left unmentioned in the SETF and house representatives’ celebratory posts on X (formerly Twitter).

One line, deep within the 22-page bill, reads: “Section 7438 of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019 is amended by striking ‘the date that is 5 years after the date of the enactment of this Act’ and inserting ‘December 31, 2032.’” This hidden line, left out of all the explainer content dished out by SETF and SAC, extends the Caesar Act, set to expire in 2024, for eight more years.

The perversely named Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019 has immiserated the more than 12 million Syrian people living under the government of Syria. Since the enactment of the Act, the percentage of the Syrian population below the poverty line has reached 90%, 600,000 Syrian children’s growth was stunted, and cases of anemia in pregnant and breastfeeding women saw a 60% rise.

Described as “unprecedented,” as one of the “strictest and most complex collective regimes in recent history,” and as the “most complicated and far-reaching sanctions regimes ever imposed,” the Syrian groups pushing for Caesar’s eight-year extension understandably shied away from mentioning the most crucial part of this new bill, even though they helped provide Syrian cover for its passing.

As for normalization, although the bill purports to impose only a U.S. policy of wholesale rejection of normalization with the Syrian government, in reality, the bill lists several measures that would threaten a whole list of other countries wishing to restore diplomatic relations with Syria.

The bill calls on the Secretary of State to submit an annual report to Congress detailing a “strategy to describe and counter actions taken or planned by foreign governments to normalize, engage with, or upgrade political, diplomatic, or economic ties with the regime led by Bashar al-Assad in Syria.” This annual report must also include “a full list of diplomatic meetings at the Ambassador level or above, between the Syrian regime and any representative of the Governments” mentioned.

The report must also include a list of any transaction of $500,000 or more between any “foreign person located in Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, or Lebanon” and any “recipient in any area of Syria held by the Assad regime.”

Sanctioning Syria: A Washington Tradition

H.R. 3202 is not the first, nor will it be the last, sanctions bill to target Syria. The economic war that the United States has been waging against Syria started long before a Tunisian banana salesman self-immolated, launching what would come to be known as the Arab Spring…

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