By Daphne Psaledakis and Maya Gebeily
WASHINGTON/BEIRUT (Reuters) -A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers introduced a bill on Thursday intended to bar the American government from recognizing Bashar al-Assad as Syria's president and to enhance Washington's ability to impose sanctions - a warning to other countries normalizing relations with Assad.
The bill, first reported by Reuters, would prohibit the government from recognizing or normalizing relations with any Syrian government led by Assad, who is under U.S. sanctions, and expands on the Caesar Act, which imposed a tough round of sanctions on Syria in 2020.
The proposed legislation comes after Arab states turned the page on years of confrontation with Assad on Sunday by allowing Syria back into the Arab League, a milestone in his regional rehabilitation even as the West continues shunning him after years of civil war.
Regional countries, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others, had for years supported anti-Assad rebels, but Syria's army - backed by Iran, Russia and allied paramilitary groups - regained most of the country. The icy ties with Assad began to thaw more quickly after devastating earthquakes in Syria and Turkey in February.
"Countries choosing to normalize with (the) unrepentant mass murderer and drug trafficker, Bashar al-Assad, are headed down the wrong path," U.S. Representative Joe Wilson, the chair of the Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, said in a statement.
Syria's information ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The bill was introduced by Wilson, House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, a fellow Republican; Republican French Hill and Democrat Brendan Boyle, who co-chair the Free, Democratic and Stable Syria Caucus; and others.
The legislation is a warning to Turkey and Arab countries that if they engage with Assad's government, they could face severe consequences, a senior congressional staffer who worked on the bill told Reuters.
"The readmission of Syria to the Arab League really infuriated (Congress) members and made clear the need to quickly act to send a signal," the staffer said.
The staffer said the State Department was consulted in the drafting of the bill.
Asked about the measure at a regular news briefing, State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel declined to comment on pending legislation. But he said Washington has been very clear it does not seek to normalize relations with Assad's government and would not support its allies and other partners doing so either.
The bill's provisions include a requirement that the secretary of state provide Congress with a strategy for countering normalization with Assad's government - including a list of diplomatic meetings between Syria's government and Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and others - every year for five years.
The legislation would also pave the way for sanctions to be imposed on airports that allow landings by Syrian Arab Airlines and another carrier, Cham Wings, the staffer said.
If passed, the bill would also require a review of transactions, including donations over $50,000 in areas of Syria held by Assad's government by anyone in Turkey, the UAE, Egypt and several other countries.
(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis in Washington and Maya Gebeily in Beirut; Additional reporting by Simon Lewis in Washington; editing by Jonathan Oatis)