The United States Congress on Tuesday ratcheted up pressure on Syria, Russia and China while making it more difficult for the Trump administration to reduce commitments to allies from Europe to Asia.
As part of a defence policy bill that passed the Senate on Tuesday, the legislation would impose sanctions on Syrian troops and others responsible for atrocities committed during Syria’s civil war and fund war crimes investigations and prosecutions.
The bill now goes to the White House, where President Donald Trump has said he will sign it.
The bill also registered strong congressional concern about Russia and China, will bind the US to support Ukraine militarily and bar the Trump administration from any move to recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In addition, it restricts Trump’s ability to extract the US from NATO or draw down its troop presence in South Korea.
It establishes funding for long-term emergency medical care for more than 40 American diplomats, other government workers and their dependents who were injured in mysterious circumstances in Cuba and China.
Sanctions over Syria
Contained in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), is the entire text of the so-called Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which is named for the former Syrian government official who took thousands of photographs of victims of torture and other abuses and smuggled them out of the country.
The Caesar bill “applies sanctions to those who lend support to the Assad regime’s military efforts in the Syrian civil war, and grants authorities to the secretary of state to support entities collecting evidence and pursuing prosecutions against those who have committed war crimes in Syria,” the House Armed Services Committee said.
The law gives the US another way to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies with sanctions. The US has already imposed sanctions on al-Assad and a number of his top officials, but the new authority allows foreign companies to be targeted if they are found to be supporting repression.
The US has offered modest support for probes into potential war crimes in Syria in the past. Much of the concern was sparked by Caesar, the codename for a Syrian forensic photographer turned over the images taken between 2011 and 2013 to human rights advocates. His revelations graphically exposed the scale of the Syrian government’s brutal crackdown.
To counter Russian aggression in Europe, Congress boosted funding for the European Defense Initiative by $734m that will pay for military construction on the continent and provide funding for anti-submarine warfare. They also renewed and extended $300m in security assistance, including lethal weaponry like cruise and anti-ship missiles, for Ukraine.
The bill will also impose sanctions on companies and governments working on the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that will link Russia and Germany. US officials believe the pipeline will increase Europe’s reliance on Russian energy.
The act seeks to deter Trump from walking away from the NATO alliance – something his critics fear is his intention – by barring the use of funds “to terminate, suspend, or file notice of withdrawal for the United States from NATO.” And it will prohibit the Pentagon from reducing the number of US troops in South Korea below 28,500 without a determination from the defence secretary that such a withdrawal is in the national security interest.