US ‘Caesar’ bill on Syria war crimes welcome but not enough

Activism of the sort that produced the bill assumes that continued global attention would prevent crimes against humanity and suffering from fading from view.
Sunday 22/12/2019
Members of the Syrian Organisation for the Victims of War display pictures documenting the torture of detainees inside the Assad regime’s prisons, in Geneva, 2016. The photographs were taken by a former military policeman of the Syrian army, known as “Caesar”. (AFP)
Members of the Syrian Organisation for the Victims of War display pictures documenting the torture of detainees inside the Assad regime’s prisons, in Geneva, 2016. (AFP)

After many years and several failed attempts, the US Senate passed legislation containing tougher sanctions on the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, its foreign backers and corporations that profit from Syria’s war.

The bill is named after “Caesar,” the assumed name of a defector from the Syrian government who smuggled from the country tens of thousands of photographs of the dead and evidence of crimes committed in the regime’s prison system whose extremities challenge description.

Caesar was quoted lamenting the lack of action the world had taken to sanction the regime and prevent its worst crimes. In this light, the US legislation is a small measure to counteract that trend but a notable victory for the Syrian diaspora and the community of Syrians in America, whose activism has borne fruit after years of failure by US legislators.

The bill is attached to the National Defence Authorisation Act for the coming year, effectively guaranteeing it being enacted.

Its advocates suggest the bill indicates the United States’ willingness to deter and punish those who would support or profit financially from crimes of the Assad regime and demonstrates Washington’s attention on a conflict many Syrians feared the United States had, perhaps gladly, forgotten.

Critics disapprove of the tools employed to advance the measure. More pertinently, many say any law of this sort will fail to address the realities of Syria’s situation and fail to serve Syrians who need assistance.

“Anything that is meant to curb what the regime is doing, I think is fine,” said Bente Scheller, director of the Middle East office of the Heinrich Boell Foundation.

In comparison with sanctions placed on the regime by the European Union, the US act “also addresses Iran and Russia,” which the EU sanctions failed to do, she noted.

The indirect sanctions proposed by the bill, however, “potentially… hit civilians and this act is very strongly focused on withholding anything from Syria and that means civilians maybe will be hit hard by the sanctions — and that in a situation in which the economy anyway is ailing, in which they have a financial crisis due to the situation in Lebanon… [and where] more than 30 million people in Syria are in need of international aid [including] in government areas,” Scheller said.

The regime cannot be trusted to deliver aid even if it is given the funds to do so. “However the sanctions for [the regime]… will make sure less will be coming into Syria,” she said.

“And [the regime] will always blame it on the sanctions and, therefore, I think it has a potential to be perceived inside Syria as something that is not directed towards the right people.”

International sanctions and counterterror provisions have made delivering aid to those in need of it in Syria more difficult.

Stories of aid convoys being prevented from unloading because of regime pressure, which the regime justifies by protesting against sanctions, abound. So, too, do stories of necessities, such as soap, being denied to insurgent-held areas because they contain trace amounts of chemicals, like nitrates, that could be used to make bombs.

The bare facts of the conflict remain unaddressed by sanctions.

“Assad and his allies have been committing crimes against humanity for the last eight years. The use of chemical weapons and attacking hospitals — both war crimes — have now become common place in Syria. Nothing is going to bring back the innocent dead or cure those millions with horrific injuries,” said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, the co-director of the medical NGO Doctors Under Fire and a frequent visitor to Syria.

“But anything that will make these atrocities less likely in future is to be applauded. It is very important that the US government puts down a marker that, in future, dictators, despots and rogue states who commit atrocities will be severely punished, and this may go some way to condemning chemical weapons and hospital attacks to history.”

Activism of the sort that produced the bill assumes that continued global attention and continued legal sanctions would prevent crimes against humanity and suffering from fading from view.

Sanctions alone, however, are little bar to those left, untroubled, in power after nearly a decade of war.

“Though I expect these groups will probably only hold back on these terrors if military strikes are also added as an action, along with sanctions to these types of heinous crimes,” de Bretton-Gordon said.

For many who have seen the results of a decade of brutal civil conflict largely unaffected by outside sanction, every piece of foreign legislation represents effort applied too weakly and too late to save many lives.

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