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5 Syria Bills That Were Sitting in Congress Before Assad's Chemical Weapons Attack

WASHINGTON — Long before President Obama decided that his red line with Syria had been crossed and came asking for authorization to strike at Bashar al-Assad, members of Congress had been putting forth legislative proposals in an effort to stop the bloodshed and mitigate its humanitarian crisis.

Bills began soon after Syrian protesters took to the streets in March 2011, inspired by the toppling of other regimes in the Arab Spring. Yet the dictator responded to the demonstrations with lethal force, which evolved into armed rebellion as the months dragged on and the death toll grew higher.

Some Syria legislation that died in the 112th Congress was resurrected this year. Still, bills that carry bipartisan support and offer a variety of options for dealing with the Syrian crisis had been pushed to the back burner before Assad’s chemical weapons attack and subsequent request by Obama for a use-of-force authorization.

H.R.893: Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Accountability Act of 2013

Introduced at the end of February by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) with 15 cosponsors, including Democrat Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and Tea Party favorite Steve Stockman (R-Texas), the bill would impose sanctions for at least two years on any person or entity transferring goods, services, or technology for the chemical, biological, or advanced conventional weapons program of Iran, North Korea, and Syria, and prohibits assistance to any foreign government that has provided aid to these regimes or has failed to prevent its citizens or entities from doing so.

“As a nation, we should come to the conclusion that when it comes to these rogue regimes, diplomacy and engagement have not and will not work. Iran has taken steps to continue its enrichment process, North Korea continues its nuclear and ballistic testing, and Syria’s arsenal may land in the wrong hands,” Ros-Lehtinen said at the time. “This bill will really step up the pressure on these regimes and hit them where it hurts: in the pockets.”

The legislation hasn’t made it out of committee. Its sanctions are similar to Ros-Lehtinen’s Syria Freedom Support Act in the 112th Congress, introduced three months after the uprising began in 2011 and passed out of committee the following year.

Ros-Lehtinen is calling on the administration to more clearly outline its operation and objectives, yet is likely to vote for strike authorization.

H.R.1327 : Free Syria Act of 2013

Introduced in March by House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) with seven co-sponsors, including House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.), this bill says “the United States should coordinate its assistance efforts with the Syrian Opposition Coalition’s Assistance Coordination Unit” while stepping up humanitarian aid and requiring assistance to be marked as being “From the American People” with a representation of the U.S. flag. It calls for military assistance to vetted Syrian forces and a broadcasting service for the Syrian opposition, and authorizes the president to “establish a program to facilitate the destruction of Syrian chemical and biological weapons, other weapons of mass destruction, and associated parts and equipment,” according to the Congressional Research Service summary.

“President Assad’s days are numbered as the situation in Syria goes from bad to worse. No longer can we watch as the world’s worst humanitarian disaster unfolds before our very eyes,” Engel said then. “We are long past due to arm friendly rebels and turn the tide to allow for a more hopeful Syrian future. Ridding Syria of Assad will provide a strategic setback to Iran, which uses Syria as a pass-through to prop up their terrorist proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

The legislation hasn’t made it out of committee. Engel and Rogers are supporting Obama’s current call for strikes against Assad.

H.RES.229: Calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and others to be tried before the International Criminal Court for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity

Introduced by Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) in May, this resolution finds that “under the command of President Bashar al-Assad, Syrian Government forces and shabiha forces have been accused of gross human rights violations including heavy shelling of civilian areas, widespread pillaging and the burning of homes, denial of basic human needs such as food, water, and medical care, mass torture and arrests, unlawful detention, and brutal execution-style killings.” It “calls on the United Nations Security Council, based on evidence that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been perpetrated in Syria, to refer the situation of Syria to the International Criminal Court.”

Israel has five co-sponsors on the resolution mired in committee, including Republicans Tom Cole (Okla.) and Aaron Schock (Ill.). He attempted the same resolution in the 112th Congress.

“We cannot turn a blind eye to the innocent men, women and children who have been and are being brutally murdered,” Israel said when introducing the bill. “Rep. Cole and I are calling on the U.N. Security Council to take action by demanding that President Assad is tried before the International Criminal Court for his horrific crimes against humanity. It is time to take action so this tragedy does not continue on our watch.”

“It is long past time for the international community to take concrete steps to stop Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from butchering his own people,” Cole said then. “Some estimate that he has killed over 10,000 civilians since the beginning of this year. In addition, through his open support of Islamic terrorism, he has the blood of thousands of Americans on his hands as well. Trying him for crimes against humanity is the very least the world can do to stop this ongoing genocide against his own people.”

Cole has said he won’t vote for Obama’s strike authorization. Israel supports it and has been whipping his colleagues to do the same.

S.617: Syria Democratic Transition Act of 2013

Sen. Bob Casey’s (D-Pa.) bill, introduced in March, has 10 co-sponsors as diverse as Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). It would increase assistance to victims of the Syrian conflict and authorize seed funding for a Syrian Reconstruction Fund. It allows for non-lethal assistance to vetted opposition fighters including “training on human rights and the international law of war” and, on the home front, “would require the Administration to scale up their public awareness campaign through traditional and social media.”

Penned long before Assad’s Aug. 21 strike on a Damascus suburb, the bill “requires a briefing on all known weapons stockpiles in Syria and encourages the U.S. to develop a plan to identify and secure all weapons stockpiles, recover and dispose of all non-conventional weapons, and prevent the illicit sale or transfer of weapons out of Syria.” Sanctions against the Central Bank of Syria and certain individuals would also be expanded.

“The conflict in Syria has entered its third year. The United States Senate should stand with the people of Syria during this critical period– the fall of Assad is not only good for Syria, but will deal a significant blow to Iran and Hezbollah,” Casey said at the time. “This bill includes a combination of humanitarian assistance, non-lethal equipment and training for the armed opposition, and sanctions against elements of the regime. The killing and destruction has gone on too long and we need to renew our efforts to support the Syrian people and opposition.”

“In Syria, we have a terrible humanitarian crisis that is strengthening Iran’s influence and giving Islamist terrorists a chance to seize power after Assad is gone,” said Rubio back then. “This legislation is a way forward in Syria that is in line with our interests because it authorizes non-lethal direct assistance to democratically-oriented groups, encourages creative ways for U.S. aid to be more apparent to the Syrian people, and urges the president to pursue additional, crippling sanctions to isolate the Assad regime and those supporting him.”

The bill has been stuck in the Foreign Relations Committee, where Rubio voted against Obama’s strike authorization this week.

S.960: Syria Transition Support Act of 2013

This bill by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Ranking Member Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) easily passed out of committee on a 15-3 vote shortly after its introduction in May. That legislation, which was placed on the calendar but hasn’t come up for a Senate vote, authorizes arms deliveries to Syrian opposition forces that have undergone “thorough” vetting by the U.S. government, creates a $250 million transition fund each year through FY2015, places sanctions on arms and oil sales to Assad, and broadens authority to provide humanitarian aid.

The measure also includes a provision for “the administration to work with Congress and keep it fully apprised of strategy towards Syria, including working through the international community and Russia to find a political settlement.”

“Given the risks to the U.S. and the region from an extremist takeover in Syria, I thank my colleagues for advancing our bill that seeks a better outcome by establishing a more focused U.S. strategy without new spending or authorizing American military force,” Corker said in May. “This effort has always been about more than the arming and training of vetted opposition groups; it is about shifting the momentum on the ground toward moderate forces while helping them build consensus for a new government post Assad.”

Both Corker and Menendez voted yes on their agreed changes to Obama’s use of force authorization in committee this week.