Syria Prepares for Massive Offensive as U.S. Votes for New Sanctions on Assad, Russia and Iran

The Senate has passed a bipartisan bill seeking to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his supporters for alleged human rights abuses committed throughout their eight-year effort to crush an anti-government insurgency. But back in the country itself, the Syrian armed forces were preparing to push on with another major offensive.

Washington lawmakers hailed Tuesday's passage of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, named after the pseudonym of a Syrian defector who leaked about 55,000 images purporting to show the government's "starvation, brutal beatings, strangulation, and other forms of torture and killing" that affected at least 11,000 people between March 2011 and August 2013. The report triggered new U.S. sanctions against Assad at the time, but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have struggled for three years to further financially target Assad and his two top international supporters, Russia and Iran.

The bill, included in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for next year, would expand existing restrictions against the Syrian government, as well as those doing business with it, and target other parts of the country's embattled economy, until those deemed responsible for the alleged war crimes were held accountable.

In the years since the bills' inception, however, the tide of the war has turned decisively in favor of the Syrian leader, who has reclaimed most of the country. On Tuesday, the pro-government Al-Watan newspaper reported on the arrival of "large and new military reinforcements yesterday, to areas considered as contact lines" in the final rebel and jihadi-held province of Idlib, including southern Khan Sheikhoun and eastern Sinjar, citing a source on the ground.

Since last September, Idlib and its outskirts have been subject to a deal struck by Russia and pro-opposition Turkey. Clashes have nonetheless persisted and the source described this frontier as the "launching point for new military operations that the army may carry out at any time, pending orders from its military command."

syria, military, strike, idlib, offensive
Smoke billows from the site of reported bombardment by the Syrian military in Tal al-Shih village, near al-Ghadfah town, in the northwestern Idlib province on December 16. Syrian troops are reportedly gearing up for a fresh offensive on Islamist-dominated Idlib in spite of repeated warnings from the United States and its allies. OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. and a number of its allies, including those in Europe and the Middle East, have repeatedly criticized the Syrian and Russian militaries' air campaign in Idlib, a region dominated by the jihadi Hayat Tahrir al-Sham coalition and other Islamist forces but that also hosts to up to 3 million civilians. So far, however, the White House appeared hesitant to use force in response to anything other than suspected chemical attacks, as occurred in April of 2017 and 2018, as Washington's aims shifted throughout the greater Syrian conflict.

Former President Barack Obama supported the insurrection that launched in 2011 seeking to oust Assad, but ultimately switched his focus to backing the majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces' battle against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in a shift made official under his successor. President Donald Trump has since overseen the defeat of ISIS' so-called caliphate, but has been met with severe criticism over plans to withdraw from the country as competing international forces advanced their own, rival agendas.

Turkey, a member of the U.S.-led NATO Western military alliance, has opposed the Pentagon's backing for the Syrian Democratic Forces because it considered the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ordered two cross-border offensives, supported by rebels, against the YPG in past years, and a third, larger attack in October caused Trump to pull U.S. troops further east, where controlling lucrative oil reserves is now a priority.

The abandonment of U.S. positions led the Syrian Democratic Forces to strike a joint security deal with the Syrian and Russia governments, whose forces have expanded their control over northern Syria, further bolstering Assad's staying power. The Syrian leader has also accelerated his calls for Kurdish fighters to give up their self-rule aspirations and return to the government fold.

While the previous editions of the Caesar Act carried more ambitious aims against Assad, such as studying the viability of imposing a partial or total no-fly-zone over Syria, the current version focuses on targeting the effort to normalize Assad's rule in the region.

Assad's military and political victories have sparked interest in rebuilding ties to his government among Arab states, many of whom severed relations altogether in 2012. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have reopened their embassies in Damascus and others have held meetings with Syrian officials as Russia attempted to use its newfound regional influence to end the convince the Arab League to end its boycott of Assad's government.

Trump is expected to sign the measure into law.