In-Depth: Sponsoring Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) introduced this bill to prohibit U.S. assistance from going to parts of Syria controlled by the Assad regime:
“Until Assad respects the rights of his people, until they’re on the path toward a better future for themselves, and until there’s accountability for the regime’s war crimes, the United States shouldn’t spend a dime on reconstruction efforts in areas controlled by the regime. Buoyed by his patrons in Moscow and Tehran, the Butcher in Damascus broke Syria. Now he and his regime have to pay the price. We should not support any scenario that leaves him in power to continue his violence and oppression against the Syrian people.”
In floor remarks last Congress, Rep. Engel said:
"[E]very time we think that the crisis in Syria could not get any worse, the Assad regime manages to plunge the country into even deeper depths. Children living in besieged Madaya could not get food, so they resort to eating leaves. A seven-year-old and her mother tweeted goodbye messages from Aleppo under siege... [T]he regime has continued using chemical weapons, which the world swore we would never use again. But no matter how Assad’s victims have met their ends—from nerve gas or barrel bombs or at the hands of Assad’s Russian or Iranian patrons—the loss of innocent life is staggering. My heart really bleeds for the people of Syria. What they have had to endure should be endured by anyone. And the United States needs to be vocal and we need to take action.As we continue to find some way to end the bloodshed, we also need to start thinking about what will come down the road. This bill says that American assistance for reconstruction in Syria should be available in areas controlled by Assad only if the regime stops indiscriminate use of weapons, ends attacks on civilians and civilian facilities, releases political prisoners, allows human-rights organizations access to the prisons, and removes senior officials complicit in human-rights abuses. If Bashar al-Assad, the Butcher of Syria, wants to destroy his own country and then expects the United States to pick up the pieces, he is sorely mistaken. That simply won’t happen. He and Russia and Iran broke Syria, and now they have to buy it. We were careful in crafting this legislation to ensure that these limitations won’t affect locally administered projects. And the bill permits humanitarian assistance to all in need. Recovery in Syria will be a slow and painful process. But we cannot allow those responsible for hundreds of thousands of murders to control American dollars meant to help the country rebuild... [T]his legislation sends a message—particularly after the Assad regime used chemical weapons—that we are closely watching the developments in Syria and that the United States will not assist those who are party to such heinous war crimes."
Original cosponsor Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) added:
“The genocide of the Syrian people by Bashar al Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers may be the worst humanitarian crisis of our generation. We cannot and must not allocate any resources to the brutal Assad regime in reconstructing what he has destroyed. As co-chair of the Friends of a Free, Stable and Democratic Syria Caucus, our goal will continue to be in support of the people of Syria who simply seek to live free and in peace. Today, we introduce this legislation to ensure Assad will pay the price for his oppression and violence.”
James Dobbins, a former US ambassador to the European Union under President George H.W. Bush, says the West — including the U.S. — may have to accept some conditions for engaging in reconstruction activities in Syria:
"At its base, the issue is: Do we want to stabilize Syria. If that’s the objective, then being willing under some conditions to engage in — or at least allow our partners to engage in — reconstruction activities across the country is an important piece of leverage. In fact, it’s virtually our only piece of leverage.”
Dobbins warns that boycotting reconstruction in Syria, as this bill would have the U.S. do for the time being, would only strengthen U.S. enemies, such as Iran and Russia, who, along with China, are the main countries currently contemplating investments in Assad regime areas. This, he says, would be dangerous:
"I think what you’d see in the case in Russia is a sort of crony capitalism in which individuals connected to the Russian regime would have privileged positions and further prey on Syria. In the case of Iran it would probably be institutions connected to the [Islamic Revolutionary] Guard.”
In March 2019, the Trump administration proposed zeroing out all new U.S. funding for Syria stabilization, while pressing U.S. allies to step up their military and financial commitments to the ongoing crisis. Members of Congress, including some sponsors of this bill, from both parties called this a mistake. Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA) said:
"It is a dangerous decision [to zero out U.S. stabilization funds for Syria]. It ends up essentially signaling a green light to this mass murderer that he and his awful allies, like the Iranian regime, will be able to just do carte blanche whatever they want."
This bill has 21 bipartisan cosponsors, including 12 Republicans and nine Democrats, in the current Congress.
Last Congress, this bill passed the House by a voice vote with the support of 25 bipartisan cosponsors, including 17 Republicans and eight Democrats.
Of Note: Since its civil war began in 2011, the destruction in Syria has been immense. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, nearly half the prewar population has been displaced, and the country's economy has collapsed. In 2018, the World Bank estimated that about 60 percent of Syrians in Syria lived in "extreme poverty," compared with only 12.3 percent in 2007.
Summary by Eric Revell(Photo Credit: Beshr Abdulhadi via Flickr / Creative Commons)