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US Congress approves bill to impose sweeping sanctions against Syrian government

US defence budget calls on administration to assist organisations investigating war crimes in Syria
Legislation orders penalties against anyone who provides 'significant construction... services to the Government of Syria' (Reuters/File photo)

The US Congress has passed a law to impose broad sanctions against the Syrian government and its allies over human rights abuses and war crimes against civilians and detainees as part of the 2020 defence budget. 

It was part of a $738bn military spending bill, which the Senate approved on Tuesday, sending it to the president's desk after the House of Representatives passed it earlier this month. 

The legislation, known as the NDAA, contains a provision directing penalties against Syrian government institutions as well as individuals who do business with Damascus. 

The section is titled Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act after the codename of a defector who leaked thousands of photos of prisoners who had been killed in government custody.

The legislation practically orders sweeping sanctions against businesspersons and companies that participate in the Syrian government-led reconstruction efforts.

It calls for penalties against anyone who "knowingly, directly or indirectly, provides significant construction or engineering services to the Government of Syria".

The NDAA, which is expected to be signed by Donald Trump this week, also calls on the secretary of state to "provide assistance to support entities that are conducting criminal investigations, supporting prosecutions, or collecting evidence" into war crimes committed in Syria since 2011.

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The act also directs the president to tell Congress about efforts the US is undertaking to protect civilians in the war-torn country. 

"The president shall brief the appropriate congressional committees on the potential effectiveness, risks, and operational requirements of military and non-military means to enhance the protection of civilians inside Syria, especially civilians who are in besieged areas, trapped at borders, or internally displaced," it reads.

Syria opposition activists welcomed the passage of the legislation on Thursday. 

"The Caesar bill would hold Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies accountable for war crimes in Syria," the Syrian American Council, an advocacy group based in Washington, said on Twitter. 

"Syrian American orgs have advocated for this bill for three and a half years, and the NDAA provides its greatest chance, with the president having indicated he will sign it."

The provision is modelled after a bill proposed in Congress earlier this year, but it is a part of the annual military spending legislation.

"This bill will not end the atrocities in Syria, but it is a step in the right direction and more importantly it gives hope to an oppressed people deserted by the world," the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a Washington-based advocacy group, said in a statement.