Lawmakers Demand Accountability for Assad’s Crimes in Syria

Today, Congress took a historic legislative step, demanding changes in U.S.-Syria policy not seen in years. On February 14th, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act (H.R. 3202) 389 to 32, aimed at holding the genocidal dictator Bashar al-Assad accountable for the countless heinous atrocities perpetrated by his regime against defenseless civilians since the start of peaceful demonstrations in Syria in 2011. This legislation represents a seminal moment, with lawmakers from across the political spectrum reaffirming Congress's pivotal role in shaping a new U.S. policy towards Syria. It stands as a great victory for the Syrian American community and their allies in the human rights movement.

The bill addresses the Biden Administration’s policy of turning a blind eye to the regional rehabilitation of Assad. Specifically, it mandates as a Statement of Policy that the U.S. will neither recognize nor normalize relations with any Syrian government under Assad's leadership. This is a groundbreaking step that sends a clear message to Assad and his backers that a lasting resolution to the Syrian conflict can only come through a political transition where Assad is pushed to the sidelines. Additionally, it mandates the development of an interagency strategy and an annual report to Congress intended for countering the normalization of Assad's regime. As we approach the anniversary of the Syrian Revolution, lawmakers are being unequivocal that they will not tolerate the U.S. standing idly by as a maniacal war criminal seeks to rejoin the international community.

H.R. 3202 extends the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act until 2032 and broadens its scope to impose sanctions on individuals and entities implicated in the unlawful expropriation of property belonging to Syrians displaced or exiled. This clause is of paramount importance, offering vital safeguards for both internally displaced individuals and refugees who refuse to return while Assad remains in power. Furthermore, the bill includes provisions for much-needed oversight over the rampant misappropriation and diversion of UN humanitarian aid by Assad's regime.

Unfortunately, such comprehensive and acutely necessary legislation encountered opposition from actors invested in the preservation of the status quo. Baseless assertions were circulated that the bill would impede humanitarian activities within Syria. In response, the Syrian American community mobilized grassroots support and enlisted the aid of Syrian humanitarian NGOs on the ground to demonstrate to Congress that these allegations were unfounded. Lawmakers, including Rep. Joe Wilson, R-SC, who introduced H.R. 3202, heeded these voices, resulting in strong bipartisan support for the bill.

This achievement cannot be overstated, particularly for me as a Syrian. Over the past three years, I have witnessed a concerning downward trend where the Biden Administration deprioritized Syria as part of President Biden’s directive to staff to keep the Middle East off his desk. This stance was made public in March 2023 with the administration's assertion that should Syria's neighbors pursue rapprochement with Assad, they ought to "get something for it". What can they get? Despite the Arab League's conciliatory gestures towards Assad, Jordan remains embroiled in a border war with the regime’s drug networks smuggling captagon and other narcotics, and the United Arab Emirates’s diplomatic overtures and decision to send a new ambassador to Damascus have neither tempered Assad’s military aggression in northwest Syria nor distanced him from Iranian influence. Ironically the State Department admitted in a recent report that Arab engagements with Assad “have not resulted in noticeable effects on stabilization efforts or stabilization assistance projects.”

Rep. Wilson and the bipartisan cohort of co-sponsors of H.R. 3202 clearly do not share the administration’s position on normalization, opting for legislative intervention to arrest this growing and inexcusable trend.

This eve, the Syrian American community celebrates the House's actions and remains steadfast in its commitment to seeing the bill pass the Senate and ultimately be signed into law by the President. We collectively strive to enshrine this pivotal moment in U.S.-Syria policy to ensure that the world understands that Assad, stained with the blood of innocents, can never be reintegrated into the fold of civilized nations and must be held accountable for his crimes.

As an activist, advocate, and humanitarian I beam with great pride in the work the Syrian American community continues to pursue day-after-day despite years of struggle and hardship back home. This exemplifies the influence and resilience of the community and its allies in shaping policies that uphold democratic principles, human rights, and accountability.

Mohammed Alaa Ghanem is a Syrian academic, human rights activist, pro-democracy campaigner, and a former editor at the digital platform that issued the original call for peaceful protests in Syria. An early pioneer of organized Syrian American political advocacy, he currently serves as the policy chief for the American Coalition for Syria (ACS), an umbrella group of eight specialized, multi-faith, regional and US-based organizations. His writings have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and Fox News among many others. A native of Damascus, he is a former assistant professor at the University of Damascus.