Congress to Condemn Syrian Genocide But Give Assad a Pass

Lawmakers want to be seen as protecting Christians, but they're divided on calling out one perpetrator.

The House of Representatives is set to condemn the genocide of ethnic minorities in Syria by the Islamic State, but members of Congress are divided over whether to call out Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the man doing the most killing there.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee plans to mark up two pieces of legislation this week related to the atrocities in the Middle East. The first is a resolution that would express Congress's judgment that the Islamic State’s targeting of Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen, Kurds and other ethnic minorities constitutes "war crimes,” "crimes against humanity” and "genocide.”

The resolution mentions the Islamic State but not the Assad regime. Led by Nebraska Republican Jeff Fortenberry, the legislation currently has 199 co-sponsors. Committee Chairman Ed Royce plans to introduce an amendment to the legislation that would discuss Assad’s role in fueling the rise of the Islamic State, but not the Assad regime’s own mass killing and torture.

Syria’s Civil War

The second piece of legislation, sponsored by New Jersey Republican Chris Smith, calls for an investigation into war crimes in Syria and the establishment of a war crimes tribunal, to address atrocities regardless of whether they were committed by the Assad regime or opposition or extremists groups. That resolution has two co-sponsors.

There’s a struggle between the Republican lawmakers who want to pass a genocide resolution that focuses almost exclusively on the Islamic State and those who believe that Congress’s attention should be focused on the Assad regime’s atrocities.

Fortenberry told me in an interview that he believes that Assad’s atrocities, while horrendous, do not meet the legal definition of genocide because they do not target the systematic elimination of a religious or ethnic group.

“The narrow tailoring of this is because we believe this meets the criteria for genocide and this is the appropriate use of this vehicle. That doesn’t mean there can’t or shouldn’t be others that address Assad as well,” he said.

Fortenberry said that if passed, his genocide resolution could raise awareness of the Islamic State’s atrocities, enable more security assistance to certain groups, and help targeted minorities to emigrate.

What is thought to be the largest group of Yazidis in the U.S. lives in Fortenberry’s district, in Lincoln. He is co-chairman of the Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus, with Democratic Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, the only Chaldean member of Congress.

Fortenberry’s bill is supported by several groups that advocate on behalf of Christians in the Middle East, including: In Defense of Christians, the Family Research Council, the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, the International Association of Genocide Scholars and the Knights of Columbus. In Defense of Christians is the group that booed Senator Ted Cruz for defending Jews and Israel.

Fortenberry told me his bill was in part an effort to pressure the Obama administration to list Christians among the oppressed if it issued a declaration of genocide aimed at the Islamic State. As Yahoo News first reported, the Obama administration is considering whether to declare that the Islamic State is perpetrating a genocide against Yazidis, but perhaps won’t include Christians in that policy statement.

Asked about that process last week during a Congressional hearing, Secretary of State John Kerry did not say whether Christians would be included. He did not call their mistreatment genocide.

“Christians have been moved in many parts of the Middle East,” Kerry said. “There has been an increased forced evacuation and displacement. It’s a removal and a cleansing ethnically and religiously, which is deeply disturbing.”

The issue has also come up in the context of the 2016 presidential campaign. Senator Marco Rubio is a co-sponsor of the Senate companion to the Fortenberry bill. During a New Hampshire town hall meeting last December, Hillary Clinton supported calling the persecution of Christians in the Middle East “genocide.”

Clinton said there was enough evidence to state that there is a concerted effort by the Islamic State “deliberately aimed at destroying not only the lives, but wiping out the existence of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East in territory controlled by ISIS.”

The Syrian opposition is already troubled that a Congressional resolution or an administration designation -- regardless of whether they include Christians as victims -- could exclude Assad as a perpetrator. His foes have long held that one of Assad’s main strategies is to portray his regime as the protector of Syrian Christians, as a means of appealing to Western leaders.

“To condemn ISIS with no mention of the Assad regime plays into the hands of a regime that helped create the terrorist group and empowered ISIS’s recruitment efforts,” said Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, an American nongovernmental organization that supports the Syrian opposition. “Congress would mirror the White House’s misguided policy by focusing on the symptom and not the cause.”

Congress is likely to pass the Fortenberry genocide resolution, because it has become a rallying cry for groups that advocate for Christians abroad. But Congress also has a responsibility to advocate for Syria’s largest group of victims, Sunni Muslims, and to be clear about who is perpetrating the greatest atrocities against them. That would be the Assad regime, not the Islamic State.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.