Top U.S. lawmakers on Monday urged all nations to shun the Syrian regime ruled by Bashar Assad as a new U.S. law imposes sanctions in response to atrocities committed during Syria's civil war.
The Caesar Act, which takes effect next week, penalizes any companies worldwide that deal with Assad and blocks any U.S. reconstruction aid until perpetrators of abuses in Syria's civil war are brought to justice.
In a rare joint statement, the top Democrats and Republicans in charge of foreign affairs in the Senate and House of Representatives said the law sends a message that "Assad remains a pariah."
"He will never regain standing as a legitimate leader," said the statement from Reps. Eliot Engel and Mike McCaul and Sens. Jim Risch and Bob Menendez.
"We strongly urge all members of the international community against commercial or diplomatic engagement with the murderous Assad regime or engaging in sanctionable behavior," they said.
The law is named for Caesar, a former Syrian military photographer who fled at great personal risk in 2014 with 55,000 images of brutality in Assad's jails.
Caesar, wearing a disguise, first testified before Congress in 2014, but the law did not pass until late last year as part of a giant defense spending bill.
The impending law already sent the Syrian pound tumbling to record lows against the dollar this weekend.
The Syrian regime last week condemned the law, saying that the United States will "bear main responsibility for the suffering of the Syrian people."
Assad ruthlessly crushed protests that erupted in 2011, with the country descending into a war that has killed more than 380,000 people, displaced millions and saw the rise of extremist groups.
With Russian support, Assad has largely triumphed, but a number of policymakers in the West are adamant never to normalize him even if he stays in power.
Amnesty International said in 2017 that as many as 13,000 people were hanged in one military-run prison alone near Damascus, with the United States saying that authorities built a crematorium to cover up evidence.
Two Syrians went on trial in April in Germany in the first case worldwide over state-sponsored torture by the Assad regime.
Clashes in northwest Syria
In the conflict-ravaged country, clashes between the regime forces and opposition groups also continue despite a relative calm that has prevailed in recent months.
An extremist group led an offensive Monday against regime forces in northwestern Syria, sparking clashes that left 19 pro-regime fighters and 22 extremists dead, a war monitor said.
Extremist groups "led by Hurras al-Deen launched an assault on two villages in Sahl al-Ghab," a region of the central province of Hama, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
They briefly seized the villages of al-Fatatra and al-Manara, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
But regime forces took them back just hours later amid Russian airstrikes and intense shelling, the Britain-based monitor said.
The offensive was launched from within the Idlib region, which is the last bastion of resistance to Damascus after nine years of devastating civil war.
The clashes were among the most serious since early March, when an agreement between Turkey and Russia halted the Syrian regime’s three-month air and ground campaign into the Idlib province.
A truce reached on March 6 has largely stemmed the fighting in the region, which Assad has vowed to fully retake.
The Idlib truce brokered by regime ally Russia and opposition backer Turkey has largely kept Syrian and Russian warplanes out of the region's skies.
The calm came as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the Middle East.
Aid groups had warned that an outbreak of the COVID-19 disease in the Idlib region could cause a humanitarian disaster of previously unseen proportions.