Sanctions Against Syria Will Help, Not Harm, Civilians

The Caesar Act is an overdue effort to starve the Assad regime of the resources that fuel its atrocities.

A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hangs in old Damascus, Syria, on June 16, 2020.
A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hangs in old Damascus, Syria, on June 16, 2020. LOUAI BESHARA/AFP via Getty Images

In person, Caesar is calm and speaks patiently. When he fled Syria, where he served as a military photographer, he brought with him 55,000 images of the burned, strangled, and whipped corpses that President Bashar al-Assad’s interrogators dispatched to the morgue. Rage or depression would seem more appropriate for an individual who risked his life to deliver irrefutable proof of the Assad regime’s mass atrocities, only to see the massacres continue amid U.S. and allied inaction.

Instead, he has helped push for U.S. sanctions against Assad. On June 17, almost six years after Caesar’s first public remarks in front of congressional leaders, the sanctions legislation that bears his name took effect after passing late last year as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020. The sanctions passed with firm backing from the White House and vocal support from both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.

The legislation is unlikely to have a sudden and dramatic impact on the Syrian economy; rather, it aims to sap the Assad regime gradually of the resources that fuel its atrocities. The law also threatens to sanction any foreign company that contracts with the regime to participate in reconstruction efforts, which would relieve Russia and Iran of the costs of propping up a failed state. An Iranian legislator recently said Iran had spent $20 billion to $30 billion on Syria, while foreign scholars have arrived at a figure as high as $15 billion per year, or $105 billion as of 2018. Russia spends an estimated $1 billion per year on the war, while it has loaned Assad $3 billion.

While U.S. President Donald Trump signed the Caesar sanctions into law last December, the legislation mandated a 180-day waiting period before the administration could impose new sanctions. During those six months, a financial crisis in next-door Lebanon has had the kind of devastating impact on the Syrian economy that no sanctions regime could design. Lebanon’s heavily dollarized economy served as Syria’s main source of hard currency amid U.S. and EU sanctions; when Lebanese banks restricted access, demand for U.S. dollars in Syria began to dramatically outstrip supply. This culminated in the free fall of the Syrian lira, which traded at 515 to the dollar last June, and 1,500 just a month ago, before bottoming out at just under 3,200 to the dollar last week.

The collapse of the lira brought with it rapid inflation. The United Nations’ World Food Programme estimated in April that the cost of a basket of basic goods such as flour and oil had increased by 111 percent over the previous 12 months. Already impoverished by the war and reliant on foreign aid, Syrians are increasingly going hungry, even in areas where Assad’s grip has long been firm. Restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 made the situation more dire, although the regime has begun to lift them. Last week, Assad fired Prime Minister Imad Khamis as public anger rose in areas under the regime’s control. The population of major urban centers seems resigned to Assad’s rule, but there have been unprecedented protests in the southern province of Suwayda, where demonstrators called for Assad’s ouster.

The deprivation Syrians were already enduring raises the perennial question of whether the sanctions will strike a balance between the pressure they exert on rogue regimes and the costs they inflict on civilians. In the case of Syria, the grisly evidence of systematic mass torture has minimized the extent to which elected officials on either side of the Atlantic have questioned the justice of sanctioning Assad and his accomplices. Still, there are a handful of analysts who equate the thinking behind the Caesar Act with the mentality of the Assad regime.

According to Aron Lund of the Century Foundation, “Both sides seem to be operating on the principle of ‘Assad or we burn the country.’” Lund elaborated, “One side has shown itself willing to bomb, starve and shell Syrian cities to cinders to prevent Assad’s removal. The other side seems just as determined to destroy Syria’s economy and keep the war smoldering forever to stop Assad from claiming victory.”

Yet extensive U.S. and European efforts to relieve the suffering of Syrian civilians belie such accusations of cruel indifference. For the duration of the war, they have paired their sanctions with billions of dollars of humanitarian aid every year, which is delivered mainly by the United Nations and its partner nongovernmental organizations. The U.N. humanitarian response plan for 2019 entailed the provision of direct assistance to 9 million individuals in Syria.

To mitigate the suffering that persists despite historic levels of aid, what Syria needs is not fewer sanctions but a root-and-branch reform of the U.N. machinery for delivering aid, which Assad has coopted to the point where U.N. agencies have become de facto adjuncts to the siege of civilian populations and other war crimes. Lengthy reports from human rights advocates, along with a disturbing internal review by U.N. staff, have documented the U.N.’s departure from the core humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence.

For years, the U.N. has let the Assad regime give direct aid to supportive populations while systematically blocking deliveries to areas outside of its control. Besieging civilian populations is a war crime, yet convoys en route to deliveries in regime-held areas would pass through besieged neighborhoods without aiding their inhabitants. Annie Sparrow, a pediatrician and professor of public health, has monitored the World Health Organization’s deference to the regime, which included parroting the Syrian Ministry of Health’s denials of a polio outbreak despite evidence the disease had begun to spread.

In a February 2018 article for Foreign Policy, Sparrow also described how the WHO helped the Syrian military evade sanctions that were blocking the procurement of supplies for its blood bank. This year, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the WHO moved quickly to provide Assad’s Ministry of Health with test kits, lab equipment, and protective gear. It was not until weeks later that aid began to trickle to regions in northeast and northwest Syria that Damascus does not control.

Critics of the Caesar Act also tend to rail against potential economic harms, while ignoring how sanctions may spare civilians from the regime’s atrocities. Shortly after Trump signed the new sanctions into law, we reached out to Caesar, who lives in an undisclosed country in Europe where he received asylum. What should Americans know about Syria right now, we asked?  “God’s children are being killed today in Idlib and in the regime’s dungeons,” Caesar said. “The search for justice and the ending of the machinery of death in Syria is a trust placed on my shoulders by the families and the souls of the thousands of victims whose horrific murder I documented.”

The Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates there are still 129,000 political prisoners by Syrian regime forces. Physicians for Human Rights has evidence of 537 attacks on medical facilities by Russian and Syrian government forces, including facilities whose coordinates the U.N. shared with the Russian military in an effort to prevent accidental strikes.

Caesar’s point seems to be that sanctions are not about seeking retribution for the crimes of the past but denying Assad the resources to perpetrate new ones. About a month after our exchange with Caesar, the regime and its sponsors launched an offensive to overrun Idlib province, the main rebel redoubt in the country’s northwest. Within weeks, Assad’s advance displaced 900,000 civilians, forcing many to live in tents or in the open amid freezing weather. Children died from the cold and families burned to death when heaters lit their tents on fire.

A counterthrust by Turkish forces and their Syrian proxies put a halt to the offensive and resulted in another one of the tentative cease-fires that are a recurrent feature of the war. It’s difficult to predict if tougher sanctions would delay or prevent the next attempt to subdue what’s left of Idlib. Unsurprisingly, the regime’s finances are opaque, as is the extent of the subsidies provided by Russia and Iran. Assessments will always employ a measure of guesswork.

Yet the same is true of claims that the Caesar Act or other sanctions will harm civilians. Nine years of relentless war—much of it targeting civilians—is the main cause of deprivation. So is the rampant corruption that distorts every aspect of the Syrian economy. The crisis touched off by the collapse of the lira will further complicate any effort to distinguish the precise impact of Caesar sanctions.

What makes the Caesar sanctions so tough is that they entail what financial analysts call secondary sanctions. Whereas primary sanctions mainly forbid U.S. persons from making transactions with individuals and entities on the Treasury Department’s blacklist, secondary sanctions impose penalties on third-country persons who do business with those on this list. The primary-versus-secondary distinction is not ironclad, since close cooperation with the regime may trigger penalties even under the primary authorities. Thus, the U.S. has already penalized Lebanese and Emirati companies under pre-Caesar authorities. Still, the introduction of secondary sanctions is the clearest change to U.S. law and sharply increases the risk to third-country firms.

In practice, the law strikes at the regime’s hope that it could pivot from war to reconstruction with the help of foreign corporations. As Caesar told us, the law “cuts off all international allies’ attempts to polish [the image of] the Syrian regime and rehabilitate it again.”

Some Russian firms may be indifferent to the risk of sanctions, but Chinese firms—let alone Brazilian or Korean ones—are unlikely to risk their access to the U.S. dollar and market to gain a foothold in Syria. The EU just renewed its sanctions in light of continuing atrocities, but if it ever lifted them, Caesar sanctions would still deter European companies from dealing with Assad. The readiness of European firms to comply with U.S. secondary sanctions became clear when the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions. Major EU-based multinationals raced to pull out of projects in Iran despite their own governments’ policy of promoting economic ties.

In principle, the law does not prohibit doing business with the Syrian private sector, yet the blacklisting of Assad’s pet oligarchs, whose reach extends throughout the economy, means that almost all sizable firms are off-limits. The ongoing scandal surrounding Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf illustrates the extent to which oligarchs enjoy their wealth at the pleasure of the regime. Makhlouf’s ascent began when he secured the right to operate the country’s first mobile service provider two decades ago. His recent downfall became a public sensation when he posted a pair of videos to Facebook imploring his cousin to stop authorities from abusing him on the pretext that he had failed to pay vast sums in taxes. One school of thought holds that Assad turned on his cousin to secure the cash necessary to pay off Russian loans. Others assert that first lady Asma al-Assad initiated the purge of Makhlouf to consolidate her own power.

Kheder Khaddour of the Carnegie Middle East Center has suggested that purging Makhlouf may backfire, since it will give other oligarchs a powerful “incentive to make quick returns and profits, and most probably to move their money outside Syria to the fullest extent possible.” It could have that effect, yet Makhlouf’s fate also suggests the extreme danger of crossing the regime. Either way, Bashar al-Assad’s dominant concerns on the economic front will remain the currency crisis and inflation.

Another important feature of the Caesar Act is that it makes sanctions mandatory, rather than letting the U.S. executive branch decide when to apply them. The current administration has been vigorous in its application of existing sanctions on Syria, although sudden reversals are also its hallmark. In light of strong support for Caesar sanctions on the Democratic side, there is a good chance that a future administration led by former Vice President Joe Biden would act in the spirit of the law.

Antony Blinken, a top Biden adviser, articulated last month the depth of his regret for Syria’s destruction in the Obama years, during which he served as a senior White House official. “We failed not for want of trying, but we failed. We failed to prevent a horrific loss of life,” Blinken said.“It’s something that I will take with me for the rest of my days.”

Syrians have heard such words before, only to be gravely disappointed by both Republicans and Democrats. The Caesar Act ensures at least a measure of action. While sanctions alone are not a strategy, they are an integral element of any plausible approach to putting constant pressure on Assad. It is worth restraining him, even if the odds of his departure—via negotiations or otherwise—seem remote. The law also sends a message to those Syrians who have not given up hope for a transition.

It will take many months, or even years, to assess the impact of Caesar sanctions. Caesar himself knows the imperative of patience and restraints. When we corresponded with him last December, he described how he had to hide his revulsion during the two years he spent collecting evidence of Assad’s crimes. “I could not let a single tear roll down my face,” he wrote. Any sign of sympathy would put him at risk, and his corpse might be the next one left for the photographers.

Testifying before Congress in March, Caesar said, “This law is a powerful message to all who support the Assad regime that the time for accountability and justice is coming and that no matter how long oppression lasts, there is no doubt that truth will prevail.”

David Adesnik is a senior fellow and the director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Twitter: @adesnik

Toby Dershowitz is senior vice president for government relations and strategy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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