The Caesar Act attempts to change the behavior of a regime that has faced restrictive measures since 1979. Are these sanctions mitigating the humanitarian cost?
The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act was signed in 2019 by President Trump and went into effect on June 17th, 2020. Otherwise known as the Caesar Act or Caesar Sanctions, the aim of these sanctions is to target Bashar al-Assad and the Ba’ath Party, as a response to the systemic torture committed by the regime documented by a photographer under the pseudonym Caesar. The United States had imposed sanctions before, but what distinguishes the Caesar Act is that it’s a law passed by Congress whereas previous ones were applied via executive order. It also allows for the U.S. Treasury to sanction third-party nationals. In addition, the European Union has its own set of sanctions targeted against the regime. On May 27th, 2021, these measures were extended for an additional year, until June 1st, 2022.
The first step into understanding the effect of sanctions is to understand the complete devastation of the Syrian economy since the outbreak of the civil war. One economic impact has been the devaluation of the Syrian Pound. For context, before the 2011 uprising, the exchange was 1 USD to 50 Syrian pounds. In October 2019, before the sanctions went into effect, that exchange was at 1 USD to 630 pounds. According to Muriel Asseburg, “By mid-January 2020, against the backdrop of an escalating financial crisis in Lebanon, it had spiked to 1,200 pounds. By June 2020, with the financial meltdown in Lebanon, the impact of Covid-19 and the psychological effect of US sanctions, it reached a record high of 3,200 pounds.” For ordinary citizens, this meant a dramatic rise in the cost of living combined with unemployment. Sanctions are not the only contributor to the state of the Syrian economy, but also by over 10 years of conflict.
Even Western media outlets are concerned about the impact these sanctions have on Syrians. The New York Times reported in February 2021 that about “60 percent of Syrians are at risk of going hungry” as warned by The World Food Program. Of course, the intransigence of the Assad regime is equally as culpable for the dire economic conditions according to the reporters.
Though the level of impact various causes have had on the economic crisis remains disputed, civilians still bear the full force of the consequences of sanctions, the Assad regime, and other international actors. The U.S. State Department states: “We remain committed to ensuring that civilians living in Syria are able to receive humanitarian support from the international community.”
In practice, humanitarian aid has become politicized in the broader geopolitical arena. Russia accuses the West of blocking humanitarian aid by “linking the allocation of funds for the reconstruction in Syria with the so-called political transition.” Meanwhile, Russia’s humanitarian aid in Syria is labeled as “shallow and symbolic” and “an instrument of soft power.” A claim that should be contextualized by the United States’ history of providing foreign assistance for reasons of self-interest.
Syrian and Russian Responses
The Syrian government has labeled the Caesar Act (and renewal of accompanying EU sanctions amid the pandemic) a “crime against humanity”, in the words of Syria’s Permanent Representation to the UN in Geneva, Hussam Eddin Ala. Former Deputy Prime Minister of Syria Walid Muallem insisted, “Caesar Act targets Syrian people’s livelihood, opens door for return of terrorism.” The government has continuously condemned the Caesar Act as economic terrorism.
Russia has understood the sanctions as an attempt at regime change. In a recent special session of the Valdai International Discussion Club on the Middle East, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke on the sanctions: “Syria is coming under more attacks and sanctions every day. The Caesar Act has been openly announced as a way to strangle Syria’s economy and force the people to rise against their government.” Perhaps the most relevant aspect of the Caesar Act for Russia is the ability of the United States to sanction third-party actors who conduct business with the Assad and government-owned entities. China, Iran, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah also remain at risk.
The Caesar Act Under President Biden
On May 6th, 2021, President Biden addressed a letter to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate on extending an Executive Order issued in 2004 against the Government of Syria. While President Biden has yet to form a clear policy on the Syrian crisis, this seems to indicate that sanctions will continue for the near future. A Department of State spokesperson told Arabic newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat, “No leniency will be shown in enforcing the Caesar Act.”
Sanctions and Syrian Civilians
Regardless of the geopolitical dimension, it’s likely that Syria will continue to face a humanitarian crisis as the country transitions into a reconstruction period. While it’s certainly debated if the Caesar Act has the ability to incentivize the Assad regime to change its behavior, the main goal seems to be limiting other international actors such as Russia and Iran in their ability to attract the funds necessary for reconstruction. Both countries already face sanctions and as such must rely on external actors for the economic recovery required to bring back refugees. Proponents of sanctions see the Caesar Act as an effort to make sanctions more effective against the regime, which has faced sets of sanctions since 1979 when it was designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. The claim is that Caesar Act targets the regime’s “mechanisms to overcome the impact of sanctions” by including sanctions against external support from strategic allies.
But do these sanctions really mitigate the humanitarian cost? Or is the Caesar Act merely the United States seeking “to manipulate money (geo-economics) to obtain what it could not achieve via geopolitics: specifically, keeping Syria a failed state that would make it a resource-draining burden for Russa and Iran, rather than an asset” (as explained by Raymond Hinnebusch)?
So far these sanctions have yet to change any behavior – President Assad was re-elected on May 27th, 2021 in an election labeled by the West as rigged. Muriel Asseburg assesses the ways sanctions have exacerbated the economic crisis (acknowledging the difficulty in isolating other causes): “It is incontrovertible, however, that they hamper remittances and food imports, increase production costs and negatively affect the production of medical goods. As such, it must be assumed that they contribute to increasing unemployment, reducing wages and salaries, and increasing the cost of living.”
There is some hope that potential investors will flout the Caesar Act. The United Arab Emirates has vocalized the need for the Syrian issue to be included in its dialogue with the United States. Though the sanctions complicate the process of normalizing relations, the UAE is still attempting to facilitate the return of Syria to the Arab League. And within Europe, there is growing divergence over the implementation of sanctions with countries such as Austria, Hungary, Italy, and Poland discussing “reopening their embassy and expanding economic engagement.” The Caesar Act will not create a free, democratic Syria – but rather a failed state isolated from any international assistance in reconstruction, and perhaps that’s the intended goal of American geostrategy.
Katrina Kalamar is a Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC).