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The Caesar Act: The beginning or end of US Syria Policy?

As the Caesar Act was signed into law, human rights groups celebrated a hard-fought victory, but it remains unclear how the new sanctions will affect Syrian civilians.

AMMAN — As US President Donald Trump signed the Caesar Act into law on December 20, 2019, human rights groups celebrated a hard-fought victory in their quest to hold the Assad regime accountable for the war crimes it committed against its people.

“I’ve waited for this moment my entire life,” Ismael Basha, the president of Washington-based Americans for a Free Syria (AFS), told Syria Direct after the Senate voted to pass the act on December 17. The bill comes as a result of nearly four years of advocacy by the Coalition for Democratic Syria made up of AFS, the Syrian American Council, Syrian Christians for Peace and the Syrian Emergency Task Force. 

The Caesar Act, named for the pseudonym of the Syrian military officer who in 2014 leaked upwards of 50,000 photos of brutalities committed in Syrian prisons, imposes far-reaching sanctions on the Assad regime and individuals that cooperate with it, as well as for the first time, on the governments of Russia and Iran for their support for Damascus.

The new law gives the US President wide latitude to sanction and freeze the assets of third parties who “support or engage in a significant transaction” with the Assad regime, according to the text of the act. This is a significant extension of previous sanctions that mostly targeted regime figures.   

However, while the bill was counted as a blow against the Assad regime and the network of cronies who have sprung up around it, Syrian activists and academics expressed concerns about the effects the punishing sanctions will have on civilians within the country, inspiring a debate about the tradeoff between the sanctions’ negative impact on civilians and on the regime. 

The Caesar Act will “definitely reduce the ability to import anything, [especially] the ability to import refined crude,” Assaad al-Achi, the executive director of the Syrian-civil society group, Baytna Syria, told Syria Direct. “This will lead to an inflationary wave, a further devaluation of the Syrian pound and poverty levels will most probably soar,” he said.

Previous sanctions, which prevented states from supplying Syria with oil, contributed to a drastic fuel crisis last winter in which Syrians queued for hours to fill their cars and struggled to find gas to heat their homes.

In addition, while US sanctions on Syria—including those in the Caesar Act—do not technically prevent the import and export of food and medicine to Syria, the cost of doing business within such a complicated legal regime, alongside fears of inadvertently violating sanctions, has raised the prices of basic goods and contributed to a shortage in medical goods and treatment.

“Sanctions are supposed to have exemptions for humanitarian use or legitimate civilian trade and so forth, but in practice, people sometimes don’t even apply for those exemptions,” Aron Lund, a fellow at The Century Foundation, told Syria Direct. “Syria is a small country; why would you run the risk of being caught up in these legal troubles?”

According to a September 2018 report from the UN Human Rights’ Council Special Rapporteur, US and EU sanctions negatively contributed to shortages of critical medicines that in their current supply, “do not cover the health needs for the population.” The report found that among other scarcities, critical parts of anti-cancer medical equipment were “simply unavailable,” due to the complex process to apply for the necessary exemptions to export those products to Syria.

Reconstruction… For who?

According to a July 2017 World Bank report, nearly 1/3 of all buildings and half of all schools and hospitals were destroyed throughout the course of the Syrian civil war. This destruction is accompanied by a severe shortage in public services, specifically electricity generation, which has left residents in regime-held areas with only 30% of the electricity needed, according to a December 12 report by the pro-regime al-Watan newspaper.

Opponents of the Caesar Act warned that these shortages would only worsen and that reconstruction efforts would be hindered under the newest round of punishing sanctions. “The act will severely delay the effort to rebuild after the war or to provide Syrians with electricity, heating, cooking gas, and other basic commodities needed for existence,” Dr. Joshua Landis, the director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies Program and founder of the Syria Comment blog, told Syria Direct.

“America’s sanctions are not smart,” he added. “They go after entire industries and particularly those that are most essential to providing state services, such as energy.”

In an interview on December 17 with China’s Phoenix Television, Bashar al-Assad said that reconstruction starts immediately with “rebuilding the infrastructure, particularly in the areas of water and electricity. Later the state shifts its focus to schools, health centers and hospitals.” He went on to blame the “embargo imposed by Western countries on Syria” for harming the reconstruction process.

However, in practice, reconstruction of civilian infrastructure and destroyed residential areas have not been prioritized by the regime. Instead, reconstruction funds have been directed towards luxury housing developments and areas which suffered less damage in the war but supported al-Assad.

Taking the example of Aleppo, one of Syria’s largest cities and one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the world, Alhakam Shaar, a Holbrooke Fellow for The Aleppo Project at the Central European University, described how reconstruction funds are largely going to pro-regime areas, even though those areas have suffered far less damage.

In Eastern Aleppo, which was a rebel stronghold until 2016, “almost 50 percent of the buildings sustained serious structural damage,” Shaar said in April “Adopt a Revolution” report. However, reconstruction plans for the city focus on the pro-regime, western part of the city, whereas eastern Aleppo is “hardly considered.”

Other urban development projects in regime held-territory—such as the infamous Marota City real estate project—have displaced lower-middle-class Syrians from their properties, oftentimes with no real chance for compensation, in order to make way for luxury housing.

Such reconstruction projects are conducted through public-private partnerships (PPPs), in which municipalities give properties or public resources to private companies for future development. In most instances, contracts for these projects are given to the holding companies belonging to individuals close to the regime. As a result of such partnerships, “regime cronies can generate private business income from public assets,” Joseph Daher, a scholar of political economy at Lausanne University, argued in the Adopt a Revolution report.

The Caesar act aims to prevent lining the pockets of those businesspeople engaged in PPPs and reconstruction by formally identifying areas from which Syrian civilians were displaced within 180 days of the act’s passage, “to deter foreign persons from entering into contracts related to reconstruction in the areas [of forced displacement],” according to the text of the act.

While the new act deprives the regime and affiliated businesspeople of western reconstruction funds, it simultaneously effectively raises prices and produces shortages in basic goods and civilian fuels. “There is a constant conversation [in Washington, D.C.] about the tradeoffs of sanctions as a non-military tool of coercion,” Dana Stroul, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former co-chair of the Syria Study Group, told Syria Direct. “The view here now is that the worst-case scenario would be changing policies in a way that would breathe new life into Assad,” she added.

“If you allow reconstruction aid now, you’re going to facilitate the survival of the Assad regime,” Stroul said. “However, by denying reconstruction aid, you are impacting the lives of Syrians inside regime-controlled areas who may not support Assad, but nevertheless can’t get on with their lives.”

Rudderless US policy

Since 2011, the US has consistently called for the Assad regime to step down in order to bring about a political solution to the civil war, something which the Caesar Act reaffirmed. However, there seems to be a fundamental “mismatch between ends and means,” according to Lund, as after 9 years of extensive US sanctions, Bashar al-Assad seems no closer to abdicating the presidency.

“The US has ambitious ends, that being the political settlement in Syria,” Stroul said. “Do we see those policy ends being matched by the policy mechanisms that the US has at its disposal? In my view, no.”

“If you talk to people inside the [Trump] administration, they will articulate the exact same policy objectives that they had two years ago. Yet, every few months we see a change in the resource investment. We’re trying to do the same things with less and less. Policy is not prioritized by senior leadership, nor matched by the resources to realize it,” Stroul said.

At the same time, there are serious doubts that sanctions have been effective in stopping or even slowing the Assad regime’s crimes against its people. Two days after the Senate passed the Caesar Act, the regime intensified its shelling of southern Idlib—prompting 80,000 civilians to flee the assault northwards towards Turkey.

“Since 2011, the idea has been if we just pile on a little bit more pressure, then Assad will come to his senses and start democratizing or releasing prisoners, but so far, we have not seen any sort of change in the government’s behavior,” Lund said.

“This economic pressure is really severe, but it’s not like Assad has not had pressure on him before,” he added. In 2015, “you had the whole east of the country taken over by enemies of the state, and he wouldn’t compromise one bit then, so I have a hard time imagining he will compromise now.”

In this sense, the Caesar Act is likely not intended to compel the Assad regime to change its behavior, as the US wants, but rather to send a “signal” that the US will not allow normalization of the Assad regime within the international community, according to Stroul.

While it might be—in the words of Stroul—”a very nice, feel-good piece of legislation that seeks to heighten economic pressure on Assad,” the legislation itself does not constitute any sort of shift in US policy towards Syria. In reality, “no one really believes that sanctions will get Assad to hold free elections,” Lund said.

“There is no coherent strategy anymore, but there is still an unwillingness to revise down your goals—and sanctions cost nothing” he added. “However, if you are going to have sanctions, then it’s your responsibility to also do your utmost to figure out how sanctions can be targeted so they don’t do any unnecessary damage to civilians.”

With the current absence of concrete US policy towards Syria apart from the sanctions regime, it seems improbable that it will achieve its goals without either increasing the US appetite for involvement in the country or by toning down the US’s stated goals for the future of Syria—neither of which are likely to occur, according to Stroul.

“It’s time to have an honest conversation with Congress and the American people about what it’s going to take to realize our objectives in Syria,” Stroul said. “But I don’t see that happening in an election year.”

This article reflects minor changes made on 06/01/2020 at 11:23 AM.

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