Syria Sanctions Bill Advances in Senate After Shutdown Delay

(Bloomberg) -- The Senate advanced legislation that would impose new sanctions on Syria, more than a month after President Donald Trump said he would withdraw American forces from the conflict there.

The measure would direct the Trump administration to impose sanctions on entities that do business with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, such as selling petroleum products or aircraft parts. It also would let state and local governments refuse to do business with anyone who boycotts Israel.

The Senate voted 74-19 to take up the bill, which was introduced by Florida Republican Marco Rubio and is supported by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Democrats voted three times to block the measure during the five-week partial government shutdown that ended over the weekend, saying they wouldn’t agree to consider it until the agencies reopened.

"This is an important piece of legislation," McConnell of Kentucky said on the Senate floor before Monday’s vote. "It comes at an urgent time."

The legislation, S. 1, came after Trump’s surprise announcement in December that he would withdraw U.S. forces from Syria after the president declared victory over Islamic State in the war-torn country.

A number of lawmakers, including prominent Senate Republicans, opposed the decision. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned shortly after the announcement, followed soon after by Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the global coalition fighting Islamic State.

Senator Lindsey Graham, normally a staunch ally of the president, said earlier this month the U.S.’s planned exit from Syria must be gradual or it risks letting the nation be overrun by Iran, Islamic State terrorists or Kurdish militants.

Trump later said that remnants of Islamic State remained in Syria and should be eradicated by other countries’ forces as the U.S. left. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that Turkey could take on that role, but has also said that an operation could target the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces. That prompted warnings from Trump and other U.S. officials.

Four Americans were killed and three were wounded in an attack earlier this month in the northern town of Manbij after a suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest attacked international forces patrolling in the area.

The Senate legislation also would authorize at least $3.3 billion annually through fiscal year 2028 for security assistance for Israel and would reauthorize expedited defense sales to Jordan.

It would let state and local governments refuse to do business with any company or individual engaging in boycott, divestment or sanctions activity directed at Israel or Israeli-controlled territories. A similar law enacted in Texas led to court challenges after a contract employee refused to sign an anti-boycott agreement.

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California has said that while she supports Israel, she opposes the anti-boycott measure as a violation of the Constitution’s protection of free speech.

Democratic Representative Eliot Engel of New York, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced a stand-alone Syria sanctions bill in the House. It was passed by voice vote last week.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.