The United States Senate Saving Syria, Punishing Syria or Both?

While it received minimal coverage in the mainstream media, on January 3, 2019, the First Session of the 116th Congress saw its first bill introduced to the floor by Senator Marco Rubio (R – FL). Given the current changing narrative on the situation regarding the withdrawal of American troops from Syria, the proposals contained in this bill are particularly pertinent.

S.1 or “Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019” which was cosponsored by Senators Gardner, McConnell and Blunt is described as follows:

A Bill to make improvements to certain defense and security assistance provisions and to authorize the appropriation of funds to Israel, to reauthorize the United States-Jordan Defense Cooperation Act of 2015, and to halt the wholesale slaughter of the Syrian people, and for other purposes.”

The ongoing Syria issue forms a key part of this bill, focussing on three sub issues with the first two being rather surprising given that one of the bill’s headline intents is to “halt the slaughter of Syrian civilians:

Issue One – The Central Bank of Syria and its links to money laundering 

(a) Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of the Treasury shall determine, under section 5318A of title 31, United States Code, whether reasonable grounds exist for concluding that the Central Bank of Syria is a financial institution of primary money laundering concern.

(b) Enhanced Due Diligence And Reporting Requirements.—If the Secretary of the Treasury determines under subsection (a) that reasonable grounds exist for concluding that the Central Bank of Syria is a financial institution of primary money laundering concern, the Secretary, in consultation with the Federal functional regulators (as defined in section 509 of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (15 U.S.C. 6809)), shall impose one or more of the special measures described in section 5318A(b) of title 31, United States Code, with respect to the Central Bank of Syria.”

Issue Two – Sanctions agains foreign persons engaging in certain transactions in Syria

The President shall impose sanctions on foreign persons who knowingly provides significant financial, material, or technological support to, or knowingly engages in a significant transaction with

(a) (i) the Government of Syria (including any entity owned or controlled by the Government of Syria) or a senior political figure of the Government of Syria;

(ii) a foreign person that is a military contractor, mercenary, or a paramilitary force knowingly operating in a military capacity inside Syria for or on behalf of the Government of Syria, the Government of the Russian Federation, or the Government of Iran; or

(iii) a foreign person subject to sanctions pursuant to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (50 U.S.C. 1701 et seq.) with respect to Syria or any other provision of law that imposes sanctions with respect to Syria;

b) knowingly sells or provides significant goods, services, technology, information, or other support that significantly facilitates the maintenance or expansion of the Government of Syria’s domestic production of natural gas, petroleum, or petroleum products;

(c) knowingly sells or provides aircraft or spare aircraft parts that are used for military purposes in Syria for or on behalf of the Government of Syria to any foreign person operating in an area directly or indirectly controlled by the Government of Syria or foreign forces associated with the Government of Syria;

(d) knowingly provides significant goods or services associated with the operation of aircraft that are used for military purposes in Syria for or on behalf of the Government of Syria to any foreign person operating in an area described in subparagraph (C); or

(e) knowingly, directly or indirectly, provides significant construction or engineering services to the Government of Syria.”

Sanctions will include inadmissibility to the United States, revocation of current visas and the blocking of all transactions in property of the foreign person if such property is in the United States or comes into the control or possession of an American citizen.

Here are the terms under which sanctions against Syria could be suspended by the President:

(1) The air space over Syria is no longer being utilized by the Government of Syria or the Government of the Russian Federation to target civilian populations through the use of incendiary devices, including barrel bombs, chemical weapons, and conventional arms, including air-delivered missiles and explosives.

(2) Areas besieged by the Government of Syria, the Government of the Russian Federation, the Government of Iran, or a foreign person are no longer cut off from international aid and have regular access to humanitarian assistance, freedom of travel, and medical care.

(3) The Government of Syria is releasing all political prisoners forcibly held within the prison system of the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the Government of Syria is allowing full access to the same facilities for investigations by appropriate international human rights organizations.

(4) The forces of the Government of Syria, the Government of the Russian Federation, the Government of Iran, and any foreign person are no longer engaged in deliberate targeting of medical facilities, schools, residential areas, and community gathering places, including markets, in violation of international norms.

(5) The Government of Syria is—

(a) taking steps to verifiably fulfill its commitments under the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction, done at Geneva September 3, 1992, and entered into force April 29, 1997 (commonly known as the “Chemical Weapons Convention”), and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, done at Washington, London, and Moscow July 1, 1968, and entered into force March 5, 1970 ; and

(b) making tangible progress toward becoming a signatory to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction, done at Washington, London, and Moscow April 10, 1972, and entered into force March 26, 1975.

(6) The Government of Syria is permitting the safe, voluntary, and dignified return of Syrians displaced by the conflict.

(7) The Government of Syria is taking verifiable steps to establish meaningful accountability for perpetrators of war crimes in Syria and justice for victims of war crimes committed by the Assad regime, including by participation in a credible and independent truth and reconciliation process.”

As an aside, while Washington seems quite concerned that Syria verifiably fulfill its commitments under the Convention on Chemical Weapons, they seem to have forgotten this:

Israel is a standalone when it comes to ratifying the Convention on Chemical Weapons which has been signed and ratified by 193 state parties.

Now that we’ve seen how the Senate proposes to punish Syria, let’s look at one of the headline purposes of S.1, America’s role in halting the wholesale slaughter of the Syrian people.

Issue Three – Assistance for the People of Syria

Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the President shall brief the appropriate congressional committees on the strategy of the President to help facilitate the ability of humanitarian organizations to access financial services to help facilitate the safe and timely delivery of assistance to communities in need in Syria.

In preparing the strategy required by subsection (a), the President shall consider credible data already obtained by other countries and nongovernmental organizations, including organizations operating in Syria.”

As you can see from this posting, the title of this bill is quite misleading.  Rather than being concerned about taking actions to protect Syrian civilians, the intentions of S.1 lean heavily toward further punishments for Syria, its economy and its steadfast leader, Bashar al Assad who, despite the best efforts of Israel and the United States, still remains firmly in control of much of Syria as you can see in the area shaded in red on this map:

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