Syria Weekly: Caesar Act to become law, with tough sanctions on Assad's torture enablers
During the first years of the Syria revolution, a photographer in the Syrian military was tasked with keeping a record of the thousands of detainees executed or tortured to death in regime prisons, a sickening part of the government's notoriously pervasive and perverse bureaucracy.
After photographing thousands of bodies held in two military prisons in the Damascus area, he secretly duplicated the photos and sent copies out of the country through members of the opposition.
After two years of compiling evidence of Syrian regime atrocities he was smuggled out of the country when his own safety was at risk.
Since then he has been known simply by the codename "Caesar" to protect his identity and has shown the world that the Syrian regime is engaged in using torture as a method of mass extermination of peaceful opponents.
In 2014, the images and other evidence were compiled and released as the Syrian Detainee Report, or Caesar Report, detailing at least 11,000 prisoners murdered by the regime in the Damascus region during the first years of the Syria war.
The harrowing photographs were presented to the US and European public at the Caesar Exhibit, so people could witness themselves the horrific lengths Assad had gone to in order to stay in power.
Across the whole country, as many as 100,000 people have been detained or "disappeared" over the past eight years of war, according to the UN, with the steady release of "death notices" by the regime in recent years meaning that many families with missing loved ones fear for the worst.
The regime's early Arab Spring crackdown on peaceful protesters, makes it likely that many of those systematically killed in regime dungeons were guilty of little more than taking part in peaceful demonstrations or were uninvolved in activism altogether but caught up in the intelligence service's paranoid drag net.
Armed with this evidence, activists and politicians in the US have sought to punish the Assad regime for unimaginable acts of cruelty with the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. After years of stalling, the bill is finally being pushed through the final US legislative body as part of the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA). When it becomes law it will have consequences not only for Syrian officials involved in murder and torture but all those who support or profit from the regime.
"The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act is the first major piece of US legislation that aims to deny the Assad regime access to the financial support it needs to continue its human rights violations and war crimes, including the bombing of hospitals and fatal torture of political prisoners," Erica Hanichak, Government Relations Director at Americans For A Free Syria told The New Arab.
"The sanctions under the Caesar Act can only be suspended by the president if certain conditions are met, including the release of political prisoners, the cessation of aerial bombardment and attacks on civilians, and accountability for those who have committed war crimes."
Having passed through the House of Representatives in 2016, it is due to be approved by the Senate next week and will see tough sanctions on the Assad regime and it allies.
It will also sanction individuals who trade with the regime, support its military and allied militias, finance oil and gas production in Syria, are involved in reconstruction or engaged in other financial transactions with Damascus.
Anyone dealing with the Assad regime in these sectors will face strict penalties under the Caesar Act, including travel restrictions and freezing of assets, Hanichak added.
"By sanctioning those who direct, commit, or finance human rights abuses, the United States squeezes Syrian regime officials, making it harder for them to access cash through corrupt deals," Hanichak added.
|The Syrian economy is already under significant pressure because the Syrian regime has spent all its money and destroyed its resources.|
"This hits at all those looking to profit financially from the Syrian people's misery. The only path to lifting the sanctions to deliver protection, accountability, and justice on behalf of the victims of the Syrian conflict’s war criminals."
The measures are important because they will provide another obstacle to companies wishing to profit from potential reconstruction in Syria or its oil and gas sectors. These are profits that would likely be used to further entrench Assad by financing his war machine and see regime cronies get richer, just as the government faces a major economic crisis, activists say.
After three-years of stalling and attempted sabotage by small elements in the US political establishment, seeing the Caeser Act become law has required enormous patience and efforts from activists.
"Any bill in Congress needs three areas to align for successful passage: the policy, the politics and the process," Hanichak explained.
"Thanks to the tremendous effort of Syria advocates and their allies in Congress, the sanctions crafted in the bill to sanction war criminals reflected the strongest policy possible under the US government. Likewise, the politics of sanctioning a war criminal like Assad in the Congress proved bipartisan and uncontroversial," she added.
The act was broadly welcomed by Republicans and Democrats alike, with just one senator attempting to provide real resistance to the measure.
"The biggest obstacle was procedure: one man - Rand Paul from Kentucky - stood as the lone senator blocking the Caesar Act's unanimous agreement by the Senate and the House," Hanichak added.
"Senator Paul is known for eccentric foreign policy positions and an isolationist perspective that frequently result in his alignment with Russia and other authoritarian regimes."
Despite Paul's best efforts to sabotage the Caesar Act, it should become law next week. It will mean that the worst war criminals in the regime, and those who support them, will be put under increased financial pressure and scrutiny.
Combined with new US sanctions on Iran - one of the regime's chief military backers, providing thousands of proxy militia fighters during the war - then it could limit the regime's ability to continue its merciless assaults on places such as Idlib, which have been subject to daily barrel bombings and widespread strikes on hospitals and schools.
"The Syrian economy is already under significant pressure because the Syrian regime has spent all its money and destroyed its resources as part of its military campaign against a democratic uprising. The Caesar Act will make it harder for the regime to access foreign funding it desires to fix the economy it has broken," Hanichak added.
Much of the success of the bill is down to one man, Caesar, who has testified in Washington and to media about the ghoulish images he has witnessed, and risked his life to ensure the truth came out of the torture chambers in Damascus.
When he heard this week that the Caesar Act would become law he cried tears of joy and relief, according to Josh Rogin of The Washington Post.
"After more than eight years, the victims of Assad's brutality and their families are one step closer to justice and accountability," Caesar told the US daily.
"I am grateful to the people of the United States represented by Congress for embodying the American values of freedom and human rights."
Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin