Syria sanctions bill passes Senate but stalls over anti-BDS

The Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation last Thursday that would impose economic and financial pressure on the regime of Syria's President Bashar Al Assad and send it to the House, where it stalled over the Combating BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement) provision. The House last month passed Syria sanctions unanimously without a BDS provision.

Why it matters: "S.1, Strengthening America's Security in the Middle East Act of 2019" passed with strong bipartisan support, but senior House Democrats have raised the same First Amendment concerns on the BDS language as their Senate colleagues who voted against it. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, while not publicly stating her views on the bill, appears to share the position that the bill's anti-BDS provisions are a poison pill, Chad Brand, a government relations officer for the Syrian American Council, told Shout News. The legislation could remain stalled in the House.

What to watch: The Syria sanctions that the House initially approved (the "Caesar Bill") could take two alternative legislative routes in order to become law, Mr. Brand said.

  • Appropriations process. Feasible, but depends on a divided Congress and the president once again negotiating an agreement on what traditionally ends bring an omnibus spending package. Typically a compromise is reached where It could become law by the end of year - avoiding a government shutdown. However, as the current standoff between President Trump and Congress has proven, we could see a redux and have another shutdown where disagreements are not resolved until some point in 2020.
  • Defense authorization bill: Sanctions would be added to the defense authorization spending bill. Last year's authorization under a GOP-controlled Congress was passed and enacted in August 2018, a record time. In the absence of potential jurisdictional roadblocks, sanctions could become law by November or December of this year.

The defense authorization route is faster, Mr. Brand said, but expects that jurisdictional issues among key committee panels that oversee defense and foreign policy policy might not agree to include the Syria sanctions on the grounds that they are non-germane to the legislation. He noted that the conference report to FY 2019 defense authorization bill did not include targeted sanctions against Iranian-backed militias fighting in Syria and Iraq that were approved to the House-passed version of the bill.

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Interview: What's next on the latest U.S. sanctions against Syria?

Interview: “America is a wounded elephant geopolitically”

A German academic who wished to remain anonymous and volunteered with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces fighting the Islamic State told Shout News in an interview that America does not have a functioning foreign policy and warned that it has national security consequences.

Highlights from the interview:

Foreign policy capacity. "The U.S. does not have the capacity for any sustainable foreign policy at the moment. It is trying to survive instead of doing politics. At least this is how it looks like from the outside."

Foreign policy continuity. "Certain things need to continue [from one administration to the other] and no one in the current administration has the understanding how to, there is no one able to respond to day to day politics."

What I hear is that U.S. diplomats, military personnel, those responsible for negotiations and communication between parties on the ground sit there and wait for orders and directions they don't receive.

National security consequences. "The next war is brewing right now, next conflicts are getting in motion, but no one is interested. It is an enormous scandal and not in the interest of the U.S."

"No one is stopping Russia. That we are worried about Europe's eastern border should tell you something. It used to be completely controlled by the U.S. There are similar developments all over Africa."

Taking America seriously. "You need a well functioning secure and stable U.S. administration in order to stand up to a NATO partner and regional bully like Turkey. Otherwise, look at what happened. The Turks don't take America seriously. How can a U.S. president let a foreign president insult him publicly and not respond [President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey threatened to "slap" President Trump in March 2018]. It is embarrassing."

"Commentators don't understand the implications of a weak administration and president, of not being sure if the president will still be in office in the next six months. It might be entertaining for American talk shows, but it signal that it is geopolitically weak, plowing through."

Syria’s Kurds oil deal with Assad tests governance

America's military ally in Syria, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supplies oil to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Why it matters: Oil revenue could be a first indication of the economic viability of northern Syria under SDF control and a good governance test: will the oil revenue benefit the territory and population groups under SDF control?

Details:

  • The oil deal should come as no surprise. The agreement between Syrian Democratic Forces and the Assad government in Damascus on sharing oil revenues is more than a year old, Shout News learned.

What to watch:

  • The oil revenue sharing agreement with the Assad government may also provide insight on how northern Syria will shape following the announced U.S. military withdrawal.

Syria’s Kurds long walk from political isolation

Several years into the winning fight against the Islamic State, America's feet on the ground are making few to no progress in leveraging and extending the military recognition and support they received from the United States into political ground and capital.

The current visit to Washington of Ilham Ahmad, a leader of the Kurdish-led political party affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Forces, has so far not involved an invitation to visit the White House and meet with the president of the United States. Contrast with the White House's 1980s meetings with Afghan mujahideen.

This policy-or lack of thereof--reflects the ambivalence of America's engagement with its partner on Syria's ground in the fight against the Islamic State: Pentagon, yes; White House, no.

The big picture: Any formal acknowledgment of the Syrian Democratic Forces' political arm, the Syrian Democratic Council, would anger Turkey, the U.S. NATO ally, weary of any Kurdish political project and military strength in northern Syria.

What's next: The implementation of President Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. It will leave Syria's Kurds and allied Arab and other groups, who fought and died in the winning battle against the Islamic State, vulnerable to an attack by Turkey.

The future of Syria is a negotiated save heaven in the north, and beware becoming Lebanon

Interview

Farouk Belal, an American citizen Syrian-Kurd in Washington, DC, has been an opponent to the regime of Bashar al Assad from the outset of the revolution, in 2011, joining early street protests demanding democratic reforms.

Mr. Belal told Shout! News in an interview that there is not going to be a lasting peace in Syria as long as President al Assad is in power and warned of Syria following the path of Lebanon, where the ending of the 1980s civil war did not include a transitional justice process and is the reason behind the absence of a stable, functioning government.

"There is no way that the world normalizes relationship with Assad. In the U.S., inside and outside Syria the revolution continues. Our main demand when we came out on the streets was asking for freedom. We did not ask for ISIS, all these killings."

Why it matters: Recent news have featured a resurgent Syrian regime moving forward with normalization--e.g. some Arab countries re-opening their embassy in Damascus--and President al Assad military's territorial gains. Yet, Mr. Belal's position demonstrates that the demands that brought him and other Syrians to the streets are still very much alive eight years after the beginning of the conflict.

Mr. Belal told Shout! News about his vision for the future of Syria.

Syria's conflict resolution should involve a series of steps aimed at bringing President al Assad to the negotiation table in order to find a political solution followed by justice and accountability for all war crimes under the umbrella of he United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254.

The starting point is to bring together the three main players in Syria now. All are foreign, "it is not a Syrian war anymore," Mr. Belal said. The US, Russia and Turkey should come to the table and find a solution, at least find an alternative solution, implemented in northern Syria, from Idlib to Afrin, Jarablus to the Euphrates, in an area currently under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces, President al Assad military, Turkey and Islamic militias. It should also involve eliminating the jihadist group al Qaeda.

A stable region in the north will become a safe haven for the Syrians who choose to return voluntary and a model for Syrians who have been hoping and fighting for democratic reforms for the past eight years, Mr. Belal said.

It will require the United States and Turkey putting pressure on Russia to bring President al Assad to the negotiation table.

Tracking casualties in Syria’s conflict

Data collection and monitoring in Syria's conflict has been exceedingly challenging, amidst disinformation campaign and lack of access. However, the horrendous human cost of this conflict makes reliable casualty data essential to justice and accountability for war crimes.

Several sources have attempted to document this data, as the Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC), which recorded and reported casualties resulting from the civil war in Syria since June 2011.

As a quick test, I selected the month of my visit to Damascus in regime-controlled area (August 2015) in the VDC dataset. During two short weeks, there were nearly daily random mortar shelling from the rebel-held suburbs (Joubar and Douma) into the city. I was lucky to escape unscathed—once only narrowly. My host, a prelate from Damascus, would occasionally relay casualties from the day's shelling. Looking at the dataset for that period, none are mentioned (assuming the prelate's reports were accurate).

It is tempting to see a political agenda behind missing data. It may not be so. It does however underscore the challenges around data collection in this conflict and the need for transparency around methodology and missing information. Syrians deserve it.

Top 3 Syria war news - January 28, 2019

1. Safe zone meaning. Viewpoints on the meaning of a "safe zone" in the area next to the Turkish border in northeast Syria are clashing between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and Turkey's Erdogan. The Syrian Democratic Forces are calling for international forces to guarantee any "safe zone" in northeast Syria, and not the Turkish troops, in the wake of an American withdrawal.

2. With all eyes on the 2,000 U.S. forces in northern Syria, it is the troops from a small American base at Al-Tanf in southeast Syria that may be the last to leave. Al-Tanf has in fact become one of the main obstacles to President Trumps's plan to leave Syria, Bloomberg said. Israeli and some U.S. officials argue that a continued American presence there is critical to interrupting Iran's supply lines into Lebanon.

3. The regime of President Bashar al Assad in Syria scored another point toward normalization. Khemaies Jhinaoui, Tunisia's foreign minister called on Saturday for the Arab League to readmit Syria. The League suspended Syria's membership in November 2011 as the death toll in the country's civil war mounted.

Interview: What's next on the latest U.S. sanctions against Syria?

Chad Brand, a government relations officer for the Syrian American Council, told me that to go into effect, legislation H.R.31 has to navigate through a slew of obstacles and crossroads, each potentially killing or slowing it down. It brought to mind Hans Christian Andersen's "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" sailing a newspaper-made boat through the treacherous water of a gutter.

What happened: On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation H.R.31 to increase economic and financial pressure on the regime of Syria's President Bashar Al Assad. The bill must now pass Senate then goes to the White House for the president to sign into law.

Highlights:

Best case scenario: Everything goes into place and the bill is forwarded to the Senate who includes it in its agenda on Monday. It passes the Senate without any changes and returns to the House for debate and passage without the need for approval of additional amendments. Once it passes the House in late February or March, the bill then heads to the White House for the president to sign into law and it goes into effect by summer.

What to expect from H.R. 31? The bill contains "more targeted sanctions than the secondary sanctions under the Obama administration," Chad Brand said, pointing to certain sections related to the energy area, cooperation, military assistance, and propping up the Syrian regime with military aid. It goes beyond exports to Syria and into Russian military firms and individuals.

What to watch: Senator John Kennedy, R-La., announced an amendment to allow the President to use military force to protect Kurdish forces in northern Syria. The language is far from clear, however, as it provides very general authority to the President. Protection against whom? While the assumption is Turkey, what about Turkish-backed forces, the Euphrates Shield? The Assad regime? Pro-regime Iranian militias? How broad is the amendment's language?

The bottom line: The sanctions would have been more effective years back when the situation in Syria was different and the regime in a weaker position, Chad Brand said. The accountability for the committing of war crimes against Syrian civilians provisions of the bill could have had a stronger impact on family members and principals around the Syrian president in terms of defections over the concerns that these individuals might be brought to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in La Hague.

Nevertheless, the Syrian American Council, who advocated for H.R. 31, sees it as a necessary step.

"The sanctions and accountability language is much needed to maintain the illegitimacy of the Assad regime and take all active steps to prevent Damascus and its backers from continuing to carry out atrocities against the Syrian people, as the U.S. undertakes a military withdrawal from Syria and the situation in Idlib continues to unfold," Chad Brand said.

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The effect of U.S. sanctions against Syria

The effect of U.S. sanctions against Syria

On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation H.R.31 to increase economic and financial pressure on the regime of Syria's President Bashar Al Assad. The bill must now pass Senate and White House to become law, which is not a guaranteed outcome, Chad Brand, a government relations officer for the Syrian American Council, told me, "because many Democrats have raised concerns over a portion of the legislation dealing with efforts to dissuade divestment in Israel, known as BDS."

H.R.31 is not new. But it brings Congressional validation to the sanctions against Syria that the U.S. administration imposed at the beginning of the uprising in 2011 with measures tightening the not around the regime--freezing all Syrian government assets in the U.S.--but that were later expended to include trade and investment with Syria.

The U.S. Congress' backing comes late. After eight years, the sanctions have failed to achieve their goals: the end of the Syrian regime or the end of the regime's violence against civilians. Today, the Assad regime is still firmly in power. It has regained, not receded, its control of the country.

In fact, sanctions have had harmful effects on the Syrian population. The financial and economic embargo has, for example, made the many Syrian opponents to the regime of President al Assad in exile unable to support their family.

An opponent to the regime of President al Assad who found political asylum in America, speaking on condition of anonymity from his home in Washington, DC, said it was nearly impossible for him to send money to support friends and relatives in need in Syria. U.S. banks and other financial institutions will not process the transaction. Alternative and informal ways through middlemen in Jordan or Turkey are possible, but costly, uncertain and risk violating the U.S. embargo, he said.

Report: Why Syria's Manbij matters beyond the Islamic State

Last June I visited "checkpoint zero," marking the frontline just outside the city of Manbij, Syria, where an Islamic State-claimed suicide attack killed four Americans on a routine patrol last Wednesday.

"Checkpoint zero" is manned by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, the alliance of Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and Syriac Christian militias and other forces created in 2015 to defeat the Islamic State.

However, there isn't the Islamic State on the other side of the frontline that "checkpoint zero" defends, but fellow Syrians; rebels backed by the Turkish military. The Euphrates Shield, as Turkey named them.

They are there to prevent Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces from expanding further west of the Euphrates and toward the border with Turkey--a scenario the Turkish government considers as a threat because of what it claims is an existential link between the Kurdish fighters in Syria and the PKK in Turkey, who has been engaged in a bloody armed struggle with the Turkish state.

The Kurds and their Syrian Democratic Forces allies said they have every reason to fear that Turkey and allied Syrian rebel forces will act in Manbij the same way they did in Afrin, a Syrian city further north, where Turkish-backed rebels reportedly committed exactions against the local population.