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Senate set to assert itself on Syria sanctions, Middle East policy early in 2019

New Syria sanctions appear to be among the top legislative priorities

Sens. Marco Rubio and Jim Risch are leading the first bill introduced in the Senate in the new Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sens. Marco Rubio and Jim Risch are leading the first bill introduced in the Senate in the new Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate is moving quickly to assert its point-of-view on U.S. policy regarding Syria and in the broader Middle East, and it could serve as a rebuttal to the decision by President Donald Trump to pull back U.S. forces from Syria.

Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio introduced the first piece of legislation on the first day of the new Congress (designated as S 1), and it could lay a marker  on the situation in Syria and the Middle East. The backers include the new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Given the level of bipartisan support, the bill is being expedited through a Senate procedure that allows for bypassing the committee process, and the new chairman of the committee of jurisdiction for most of the bills is on board with the approach.

“This package of legislation is an important step toward finishing the work of the last Congress. Israel and Jordan have been steadfast allies of the United States that deserve this support,” Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch of Idaho said in a statement. “Also, it is vital to confront Syrian government atrocities and end discrimination against Israel. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee reviewed these bills last Congress and they had near unanimous support. It is time to move them forward.”

The bill is expected to be among the first legislative items considered on the Senate floor, according to a Rubio aide.

“It is in America’s national security interests to ensure that our allies in the Middle East like Israel and Jordan remain secure amid the region’s growing destabilizing threats posed by Iran and Syria’s Assad regime,” Rubio said in a statement. “This important bill will also impose new sanctions against the Assad regime and its supporters who continue to commit horrific human rights violations against the Syrian people.”

The most notable component may be a bipartisan package of additional sanctions against the Syrian government, the Central Bank of Syria and affiliated entities. The legislation, which passed the House by voice vote during the last Congress, was sponsored by Democratic Rep. Eliot L. Engel.

Engel is the new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee with the Democrats taking the majority in that chamber on Thursday.

According to the aide to Rubio, the Senate bill bundles together a total of four measures that did not get through in 2018. That includes an extension of a law authorizing defense cooperation with the Kingdom of Jordan and another regarding cooperation with Israel.

The package also includes a bipartisan bill opposing boycotts or divestment from Israel that Rubio authored with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia in the last Congress. Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., had pushed against incorporating such a measure into end-of-the-year spending legislation in the 115th Congress.

It’s likely to be considered on the floor early in the 116th Congress, and a senior Republican aide said more information would be coming soon.

“I am proud to sponsor this legislation, which enhances our alliances in the Middle East, condemns the heinous human rights abuses of the Assad regime, and takes a strong stance against the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic BDS movement,” said Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., another of the co-sponsors.

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