The House is expected to vote Wednesday evening on bipartisan legislation that would impose new sanctions on the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad for war crimes and human rights abuses against civilians, sources with the House Foreign Affairs Committee confirmed.
The 4 p.m. vote is set to arrive two days after the State Department accused the Syrian government of using a crematorium to dispose of human remains from mass executions at a military prison north of Damascus unofficially named the "slaughterhouse."
The legislation, introduced in March by Rep. Ed Royce (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and his Democratic committee counterpart Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.), has more than 100 co-sponsors. More than half of the co-sponsors are Democrats.
The bill would impose sanctions on the Assad regime and its foreign backers by requiring the Trump administration to blacklist any company or person that does business with the Syrian government and its entities, including Assad-controlled industries such as energy and air travel. It also would provide U.S. assistance to groups pursuing investigations into Syrian war crimes in order to galvanize prosecutions.
The Obama administration prevented a similar measure from receiving a House vote in the fall despite broad bipartisan support.
Administration officials told Democratic lawmakers at the time the legislation would impact fragile ceasefire negotiations between then-Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, the Washington Post reported in October.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee said in a statement Monday the "legislation is needed now more than ever," citing the Trump administration's assertion that the Assad regime was systematically burning the bodies of executed inmates at the Saydnaya military prison to cover up the mass murders.
The accusations are based on newly declassified aerial photos of the Saydnaya prison complex that show the construction of the crematorium in 2013.
"We now believe that the Syrian regime has installed a crematorium in the Saydnaya prison complex, which could dispose of detainees' remains with little evidence," Stuart Jones, the acting assistant secretary of state for Middle East affairs, told reporters Monday. "At this point, we are talking about this evidence and bringing it forward to the international community, which we hope will put pressure on the regime to change its behavior."
The United Nations kicked off its sixth round of Syrian peace talks in Geneva on Tuesday. The State Department's accusations are expected to be discussed at the talks.
Amnesty International released a report in February offering evidence that the Assad regime executed up to 13,000 Syrians through mass hangings at the Saydnaya prison over a four-year span. Thousands more were killed through systematic torture that included severe beatings, rape, and starvation, according to the group.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged Lavrov in a meeting at the White House last week to exert Moscow's influence over Syria to pressure Assad into reining in his regime, according to a State Department spokeswoman.