President Obama Stands Poised to Reward Assad’s Biggest Supporter

Cross-posted from the United to End Genocide Blog.

The situation in Syria is grave. Fears of the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Assad reached new heights last week. The United Nations (UN) is pulling more than 1,000 staffers from Syria due to intensified fighting near the capital. Additionally, a 48-hour Internet blackout has made communications with critical staff impossible.

For nearly two years, Russia has intentionally blocked action to save innocent lives in Syria, even as it remains the main weapons supplier to the Syrian regime. Diplomatically, they have vetoed three UN resolutions for a peace settlement and militarily, they’ve supplied the Assad regime with attack helicopters, advanced defensive missile systems and munitions.

This past summer, a Syrian government plane returned home from Russia with 200 tons of “bank notes,” providing Syria with valuable currency as the United States and others imposed trade sanctions, weakening the Syrian economy. By supplying the murderous Assad regime with currency, weapons and blocking UN resolutions aimed at ending bloodshed in Syria, Russia has become an important lifeline for the brutal Assad government.

As the civilian death toll continues to climb in Syria, President Obama is about to lift Russian trade restrictions that have been in place for 40 years. The Senate voted last week to lift the Cold War-era ban that would normalize trade relations with Russia, to which President Obama responded, “I look forward to receiving and signing this legislation.” Ironically, this will formally make Russia a “most favored nation” of the United States.

Russia’s role in the slaughter of 40,000 people is not what is driving this policy shift. Guess what is? Lawmakers hope that the legislation will boost U.S. exports by giving U.S. businesses increased market access. U.S. exports to Russia could double in 5 years. “Our manufacturing sector needs every boost it can get,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry.

Human rights champions in the House and Senate noted that the bill included another Act – the Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act – that targets Russian human rights abusers. The law blacklists Russians connected to the death of Magnitsky, whose crime was working for American law firm in Moscow when he discovered a $230 million tax fraud being carried out by Russian police. He died in police custody. The law will also authorize the blacklisting of those responsible for other gross human rights violations, prohibiting entrance to the United States and use of its banking system.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), one of champions for the Magnitsky bill, said “Today, we open a new chapter in U.S. leadership for human rights.”

Maybe so, but what about the human rights of the innocent people of Syria who are being slaughtered by their government? Rewarding Russia with economic perks and declaring it “most favored” while the Russian government provides the murderous Syrian regime with arms and diplomatic cover is wrong.

The United States has appealed for Russia to reverse course on its support of Assad and has condemned Russian intransience with words. But, money talks. By dolling out economic perks and trade deals to Russia – even as people die in Syria – the U.S. is sending precisely the wrong message at the worst possible time.

Tell President Obama that Russia should not be awarded perks while it aids and abets mass murder in Syria. Ask him to stand with the Syrian people by keeping trade restrictions on Russia in place.

Tom Andrews is the President of United to End Genocide.