On 17 June, the US announced it had begun implementing the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which targets the Syrian regime and parties cooperating with or supporting it.
Washington also issued a first list of 39 people and entities under sanction, including Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and his wife Asmaa Al-Akhras because “she is among those benefiting the most from the Syrian war,” according to the US State Department.
It added that there will be more such lists to follow in the coming weeks.
The Caesar Act, signed by US President Donald Trump in December 2019, places stiff economic sanctions on the Al-Assad regime and its foreign supporters as a result of the regime’s actions against the Syrian people. Washington said it will gradually increase the sanctions under the Caesar Act until the regime halts the conflict that started more than nine years ago and agrees to a political solution based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
The act is named after a Syrian military police photographer who leaked 55,000 photographs to the media and international organisations of thousands of people tortured and killed in government detention centres. The act penalises anyone who deals with the Al-Assad regime with travel restrictions and sanctions wherever they are in the world.
Observers believe that the Caesar Act will tighten the noose around the Syrian regime more than any previous sanctions, and its implementation coincides with the already dire economic conditions in Syria. Some 9.3 million people lack food security, the local currency is in freefall after losing 50 per cent of its value in a month, and there are also economic troubles facing regime allies, notably Iran.
The US said the legislation did not target humanitarian aid or destabilise northeastern Syria, but aimed to prevent the Al-Assad regime from scoring a military victory and was meant to redirect it towards the political process and block revenues used to continue the conflict.
However, many believe that the sanctions will also impact the Syrian people and increase the rates of poverty in the country, while others predict that the sanctions will condemn Syria to famine. The Syrian opposition views the sanctions as welcome, seeing them as a way of holding accountable those accused of human rights violations and other crimes in Syria.
It also believes the sanctions are a way to put pressure on the regime and its allies to halt all human rights abuses. While it admits that the sanctions will result in collateral damage among civilians, it believes that this will not compare to the damage caused by the nine-year conflict.
The US sanctions have been criticised by Russia, with Russian ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzya saying that Washington wanted to “topple the legitimate authorities in Syria.” Other Russian officials said the sanctions were inhumane, but Moscow’s response to them was not as rigorous as the regime’s expectations. Russia is concerned about its economic interests around the world, and it will be hurt if the US adds major Russian government or hybrid companies to the sanction lists for cooperating with the Syrian regime.
The Caesar Act sanctions will certainly impact the Syrian regime and economy and hurt many businessmen and others supporting the regime. They will also harm neighbouring Lebanon, which is controlled by the Shia group Hizbullah, a key supporter of the Syrian regime.
The Caesar Act is the most effective of the sanctions that have yet been introduced by the US since it includes modes of implementation that could strangle any entity thought to be subject to them as a result of US control of the global financial order. Although the Caesar Act sanctions are not mandated by the UN Security Council, they are just as powerful because most countries will comply with them to avoid any trouble with the US.
The sanctions target everyone dealing with the Syrian government for five years, and they are renewable. They also block the Syrian government from making use of its full economic and financial resources, as well as blocking its access to technology helping it to develop its security and military capabilities.
Fadel Abdel-Ghani, the director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a NGO, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the new sanctions differed in three key ways to those that had gone before.
“First and foremost, they go beyond just sanctioning the regime, unlike previous sanctions, and they also target countries, institutions and individuals who deal with the regime and even those who deal with parties that deal with the regime,” he said.
“Second, the act was passed by the US Congress and not issued by the president, as was the case previously, and as a result it will be difficult to revoke or suspend it. Third, there is the question of how the act will impact the reconstruction in Syria, making it difficult for Russia to monopolise the political process in Syria despite the gains it has made through its support for the regime.
Some have noted that the US wants to punish and discipline the Syrian regime, but not to topple it, as a result of the implementation of the Caesar Act. It wants the regime to return to the political track outlined by international resolutions, and it does not want to overthrow Al-Assad.
The opposition believes Washington is mistaken if it thinks the regime can be reformed or will agree to a political solution that will transform Syria into a pluralist democracy with the rotation of power.
Irrespective of the US agenda, the Caesar Act looks certain to prevent the rehabilitation of the Syrian regime in Arab or international circles, and it will undermine Iran and Hizbullah and obstruct their interests. The legislation will also block the regime from moving on reconstruction and harm the lives of Syrians in areas under regime control.
It will limit the ability of Syrian state institutions to provide fuel, spare parts, communications technology and commodities and services that citizens need, leading to the likely further rejection of the regime.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly