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Analysis: Syria Civilian Protection Act (H.R. 1677)

“Syria Civilian Protection Act” Would Obstruct Negotiations to Stop the Killing

By Kate Gould, April 7, 2017

The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act (H.R.1677) would undermine its stated goal to encourage a negotiated political solution to halt the slaughter of the Syrian people. Ultimately, as countless U.S. officials and Syria experts have pointed out, a political settlement is the only way to stop the killing.

H.R.1677, if passed, will:

Tie Diplomats’ Hands who are Working to Negotiate a Political Solution:

Titles I & II outlines the additional sanctions imposed under H.R. 1677 against the Syrian government and those who do business with the Assad regime. Title IV, Section 401 lays out in great detail what conditions would have to be met for the Administration to lift these sanctions before the act expires on December 31, 2021. For Congress to put any preconditions on a ceasefire agreement risks hamstringing diplomats’ work to adapt to the situation on the ground to negotiate an agreement to save lives. While the Administration has the authority to waive specified sanctions, the bill sends a political signal to the parties involved that the Administration does not have the political space and flexibility to negotiate, and that Congress will micromanage in great detail the negotiations underway.

Impose Unrealistic Preconditions for a Temporary Ceasefire:

The preconditions outlined in Title IV are particularly unrealistic for U.S. diplomats to negotiate a temporary ceasefire that falls short of a broader political settlement, which H.R. 1677 defines as a resolution to end the violence that is negotiated through face-to-face by the Assad regime and the High Negotiations Committee or its successor.

That means that if U.S. diplomats were presented with an opportunity to negotiate a limited ceasefire, contingent on lifting the sanctions on H.R. 1677, they would not be adhering to this legislation. While H.R. 1677 and other sanctions are purportedly intended to give diplomats leverage, the onerous conditions placed on diplomats to exercise such leverage would further constrain, rather than expand diplomats’ maneuverability.

The President would have to certify that the following preconditions are met to lift H.R. 1677’s sanctions in the absence of a broader political settlement:

  1. The Assad regime and its associated forces stop ALL aerial attacks on civilians

  2. All areas under control of Assad have ‘regular access to humanitarian assistance, freedom of travel, and medical care’

  3. The Syrian government is “releasing all political prisoners forcibly held within the Assad regime prison system” and it has “allowed full access to the same facilities for investigations by appropriate international human rights organizations”

  4. Assad regime and its associated forces no longer target civilian areas

As laudable as these goals are, it is beyond conceivable that these criteria would ever be met in Syria in the foreseeable future. Most of the world’s governments keep political prisoners and do not allow international human rights organizations of any sort to have ‘full access’ to their prisons. (Worth noting the difficulty U.N. officials have faced accessing U.S. prisons, like Guantanamo.)

Make the Perfect the Enemy of Life-Saving Negotiations

What if the Syrian government agrees to end its barrel bombing and chlorine gas attacks against civilians in exchange for the lifting of H.R. 1677 sanctions, but doesn’t release all of its political prisoners? Why would Congress want to prevent diplomats from securing a solution to save thousands of Syrian lives on these grounds? To impose such a precondition on Syria negotiations risks undermining attempts to negotiate a limited ceasefire agreement.

Punish Iranian Civilians, Empowers Iran Hardliners

Title I, Section 101 and 102 would impose far-reaching sanctions against the Assad regime, Iran, Russia and any other country or company that does business with the Assad regime. This would undermine the Iran nuclear accord (JCPOA) in various ways, but perhaps most importantly, this bill would re-impose some of the same sanctions that were lifted in the JCPOA in exchange for Iran’s nuclear concessions, further obstructing Iran from receiving the sanctions relief. With all of the difficulty Iran has already had to get the sanctions relief it anticipated after JCPOA implementation, imposing road blocks on that sanction relief would cause public support for the JCPOA to further wither. Hardline opponents to Rouhani have already seized on discontent from the JCPOA’s failure to deliver meaningful economic relief, and this would only exacerbate that dynamic in Iran, in advance of the May 2017 Iranian presidential elections.

A victory for hardliners in Iran in May is a further loss to the people of Syria. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are partnering with the Assad regime in the slaughter of Syria’s civilians, and if they in control of the Iranian president’s office, the brutality would likely increase.

Bottom Line: Congress Should Support Diplomats, Not Undermine Them.

Adding one more set of sanctions against Syria, Iran and Russia is clearly not going to stop the killing or change the calculus of these countries that have years of experience of circumventing U.S. sanctions. More sanctions could tie the hands of diplomats’ trying to seize on any opportunity available to stop the killing of civilians in Syria. Laying out unrealistic preconditions will only delay action toward a political settlement that remains the only way to ultimately protect Syrian civilians.

Kate Gould

  • Legislative Director, Middle East Policy

Kate Gould served as FCNL's Legislative Director for Middle East Policy. Kate was one of only a handful of registered lobbyists in Washington, D.C. working to advance human rights objectives and support diplomatic solutions to resolve disputes between the U.S. and Iran and the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Israel/Palestine.