By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. House committee on Wednesday voted to impose new sanctions on Syria's energy sector and called for referring its president, Bashar al-Assad, to a war crimes tribunal.
The legislation would help bring about Assad's downfall by "tightening the financial noose around Assad's neck - already tied very tight by the Obama Administration," said Representative Howard Berman, a Democrat who co-sponsored it.
The bill must pass the entire House and Senate before President Barack Obama would decide whether to sign it into law. The outlook for passage in the House is good, considering it has bipartisan support; the chief House sponsors are House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Democrat Eliot Engel. In the Senate, similar measures have been proposed by a Democrat, Kirsten Gillibrand.
Concerns about impact on energy prices could slow the measure down, as has happened before with similar sanctions legislation aimed at Iran. If sanctions crimped Syrian oil sales, that could further tighten world oil supplies, boosting oil prices.
The Obama administration has already ordered a variety of sanctions on Syria, adding to the pressure on Assad and his government to end a nearly year-long crackdown on protesters. The United Nations says Syrian security forces have killed well over 7,500 people.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to impose sanctions on anyone who invests more than $5 million in developing Syria's oil and gas resources, or who spends at least $1 million assisting Syria's refineries.
It would also sanction those who sell or provide to Syria refined petroleum products worth more than $1 million.
The sanctions, including bans on U.S. loans and export licenses and dealings with U.S. financial institutions, would apply to foreign entities as well as the United States. U.S. citizens have already been prohibited from some transactions with Syria's energy sector.
One provision calls for Assad and other senior government officials to be referred to an international tribunal to be tried for crimes against humanity and other human rights violations.
The legislation would also deny visas to executives, shareholders, and other senior officials of companies - many from Russia and China - that continue to arm the Assad government, Berman told fellow lawmakers before the vote.
It authorizes up to $250 million to be spent to help a post-Assad government eliminate chemical, biological or nuclear arms. The bill contains language allowing the president to waive its provisions on grounds of national security.
In April 2011, the Obama administration began a series of asset freezes and bans on business dealings with Syria, on top of broader U.S. measures which have been in place since 2004. The administration blacklisted companies as well as members of the government and branches of Syria's security forces.
In August, the administration ordered a freeze to all Syrian assets in the United States. It barred U.S. citizens from making investments in or exporting services to Syria and banned U.S. imports of Syrian petroleum products. Companies placed on the blacklist included Sytrol and the Syrian Petroleum Company.
Syria is already one of four places where production problems have helped tighten global oil markets, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said last week. The other places are South Sudan, Yemen and the North Sea.
The agency's data shows Syria produced about 400,000 barrels per day in 2010, almost all exported to Europe. But the agency said that because of the conflict there, Syria's recent production has been only half that.
(Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner and Roberta Rampton; editing by Warren Strobel and Mohammad Zargham)