New Sanctions on Assad Aim to Prevent Atrocities
In 2013, the regime of Bashar al-Assad received a report that opposition forces had captured and killed an employee of the defense ministry. That report was false. The man — a photographer from the ministry’s Criminal Forensics Division — had faked his own death. He moved from one hiding place to another within Syria. Then he crossed into Jordan, hidden in the bed of a truck along with his camera, and several flash drives containing proof of the Assad government’s crimes.
In exile, the photographer acquired the code name Caesar. He brought with him 55,000 digital images that show emaciated and mangled corpses — victims of torture and murder at the hands of Syria’s intelligence services. The FBI’s Digital Evidence Laboratory verified the images, which have become part of displays at the Capitol, the United Nations, the European Parliament, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Last December, the president signed into law the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which congressional leaders embedded in their annual defense authorization bill. The law took effect on June 17. That morning, the U.S. Departments of State and Treasury announced the first tranche of new sanctions. The targets included three Syrian businessmen and six companies that have entered into partnerships with the Assad regime to pursue real estate developments worth tens of millions of dollars.
The passage of the Caesar Act entailed an exceptional degree of bipartisan consensus and cooperation at a time of polarization and gridlock. There were few objections in Congress to a program of economic sanctions designed to hold the Assad regime accountable for systematic war crimes for which there is overwhelming and grisly evidence. There is even transatlantic cooperation with regard to imposing sanctions on Syria.
Other key aspects of U.S. policy toward Syria remains unsettled. The president has twice ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. troops fighting the Islamic State in northeast Syria, only to reverse himself under intense pressure from lawmakers in his own party. Washington has not articulated the precise nature of America’s objectives in the Levant. Yet preventing Assad and his partners from carrying out further atrocities is clearly one of them. As James Jeffrey and Joel Rayburn — America’s top diplomats working on Syria — noted in a recent briefing, the Caesar Act has the potential to do so by gradually sapping the regime of the resources it needs to mount the military operations against civilians.
A coherent policy toward Syria would maximize the impact of tougher sanctions by coordinating the military and diplomatic components of U.S. policy. However, the president’s impulsive decisions have frustrated such efforts. In the meantime, economic pressure can deprive the Syrian government of funds, which in turn limits its ability to launch military offensives that terrorize civilians with indiscriminate bombing, deliberate attacks on hospitals, and other war crimes. Some critics rightly note that part of the cost of sanctions is likely to fall on ordinary Syrians, yet there are other ways to address their needs, such as reforming humanitarian assistance programs. Ultimately, other than sanctions, there is no option on the table that has the potential to stop at least some of Assad’s atrocities.
What’s New in the Caesar Act?
Previous U.S. sanctions against Syria mainly prohibited American individuals and companies from doing business with the Assad regime and others blacklisted by the Treasury Department. The Caesar Act includes so-called “secondary sanctions” that impose penalties on third-country actors — say Lebanese or Emirati businesses — that transact with those on the blacklist. There is especially strict language regarding activity in the construction and petroleum sectors. In principle, the law does not prohibit doing business with the Syrian private sector, yet the blacklisting of oligarchs close to Assad, whose reach extends throughout the economy, means that almost all sizable firms are off-limits.
The Assad regime insists that sanctions amount to “economic terrorism.” On this point, Damascus has the support of Tehran, Moscow, Beijing, and several other dictatorships that share a common interest in delegitimizing coercive human rights policies. In the West, a handful of Assad apologists and fringe ideologues recite the regime’s talking points. Yet there is also a contingent of good faith critics who acknowledge the gravity of the crimes for which Assad is responsible, but assess that sanctions cause unintended harm to civilians that outweighs their impact on the Syrian regime.
Critiquing New Sanctions
With an estimated 83 percent of Syrians living below the poverty line, there is some hesitation to support any policy, like sanctions, that causes economic disruption. There is also skepticism that sanctions can restrain Assad in a meaningful way, since earlier sanctions have not stopped the regime from killing and torturing hundreds of thousands of its own citizens.
Criticism of the Caesar Act, including in a recent War on the Rocks article by Basma Alloush and Alex Simon, is a matter of personal importance to me. My colleagues and I have worked with Caesar for years to put human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy toward Syria. In that time, I have found the case against sanctions to be consistently unpersuasive.
First and foremost, critics of Western sanctions tend to miss the big picture. They focus narrowly on the deprivation they attribute to sanctions, often without also mentioning that Western governments have sent billions of dollars of humanitarian assistance to Syria each year. The U.N. Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs reports that U.N. agencies, funded almost entirely by Western governments, have spent more than $42 billion to address the crisis in Syria since 2012, a figure that includes spending to care for refugees outside the country. The United States has provided $10.6 billion of assistance, including donations to the United Nations for Syria-related work. At first glance, the combination of sanctions and aid may seem like giving with one hand while taking with the other. The essential difference, at least in principle, is that aid directly addresses the need of civilians, while sanctions seek to deprive the regime of revenue it can direct to military offensives, offshore bank accounts, or other undesirable uses. The Assad regime still directs some of its income to food subsidies, yet such programs enrich favored contractors at the expense of the intended beneficiaries.
Regrettably, a pliant United Nations has allowed the Assad regime to direct aid flows to supportive regions while denying aid to populations under rebel control. Thus, the international community tolerates the regime’s starvation campaigns, which are an unmistakable war crime. An exhaustive report by The Syria Campaign, a human rights organization, concluded, “The United Nations (UN) in Syria is in serious breach of the humanitarian principles of impartiality, independence and neutrality.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) is among the worst offenders under the U.N. umbrella. The pediatrician and public health expert Annie Sparrow has exposed how the WHO frustrated efforts to document the spread of polio, which re-emerged in Syria because the regime prevented the vaccination of children in areas outside its control. As Sparrow documented, the WHO even facilitated the efforts of the Syrian military to evade sanctions that prevented its blood bank from purchasing foreign supplies.
The most urgent reform necessary to protect the well-being of Syrian civilians is not a lifting of sanctions, but a root-and-branch reform of the U.N. aid machinery. This would benefit those living under Assad’s control as well as those on the other side of the front lines. While the manipulation of aid inflicts the greatest harm on those living in opposition-held territory, the regime also distributes it in an unequal and politicized manner among those under its control, while corruption claims a sizable share of what the United Nations provides.
In hopes of promoting reform, several members of Congress have introduced legislation that would make U.N. reforms a prerequisite for continued American funding of aid programs headquartered in Damascus — in the absence of reform, the bill would redirect funding to aid programs Assad cannot manipulate. So far, the bipartisan coalition responsible for the Caesar Act has not recognized the necessity of this related measure.
The second major weakness of the arguments against sanctions on Syria, and the Caesar Act in particular, is the inconsistent manner in which critics address the uncertainty of the sanctions’ impact. While treating economic harm as a certainty, they tend to dismiss the possibility (or not even ask) whether sanctions will deprive Assad of the resources to launch his next atrocity-laden military offensive.
In February, Assad’s forces, with support from Russian aircraft and Hezbollah infantry, pushed northward into parts of Idlib province that remain under the control of insurgents who are mainly Sunni jihadists. The regime offensive rapidly displaced 900,000 civilians, forcing many to live in tents or in the open in freezing weather. Children died from the cold and families burned to death when heaters lit their tents on fire.
It is difficult to know whether sanctions could help to prevent such offensives. In the public domain, there is little or no credible information about the cost of the regime’s military operations. Nor is it possible to quantify the revenue Assad has lost as a result of sanctions. Yet there are numerous indications of severe financial distress. The Syrian lira lost half of its value over the past six weeks, yet the central bank appears incapable of any sort of intervention in the currency markets. Also, to the astonishment of most Syrians, Assad stripped his maternal cousin, Rami Makhlouf, of extensive assets accumulated during twenty years as the country’s top power broker in the private sector. The focus of the dispute was the government’s sudden decision in April to demand $180 million from Syria’s two mobile phone operators; Makhlouf owns the larger of the two. Some analysts believe Assad needed the money to make payments on loans from Moscow.
Assad is also contending at the moment with renewed protests calling for his ouster in the southern province of Suweida, but has yet to order a major crack down. The government also appears to be relying on negotiations to deal with a wave of assassinations and other attacks in southern Syria. As the situation develops, there is good reason to test the hypothesis that Assad may not have the means to deal forcefully with opposition in the south while preparing for a new offensive in the north. If so, tougher sanctions may aggravate that shortage of means, precisely as the authors of the Caesar Act intended.
Conversely, it is far from certain that Caesar sanctions will exact a meaningful toll on the average Syrian’s well-being. To begin with, Assad’s offensives have left much of the country in ruins. Its oil fields lie beyond the government’s reach in northeast Syria. The lira is plummeting thanks to a financial crisis in Lebanon, which long served as Syria’s main source of hard currency. When Lebanese banks restricted access to deposits, demand for U.S. dollars in Syria began to dramatically outstrip supply, sending the local currency spiraling downwards and setting of a ruinous bout of inflation. The U.N. World Food Programme estimates that the cost of a basket of basic goods such as flour and oil has increased by 111 percent over the past 12 months.
Amid this chaos, the impact of Caesar sanctions on a typical household may be marginal, if it is felt at all. Still, one might argue that the average Syrian has endured enough deprivation, so adding to it in any way would be wrong. It is a mistake, however, to view the matter only from the perspective of the average Syrian. When I corresponded with Caesar last December, his first concern was those who remain in captivity. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the regime’s political prisoners still number some 129,000. “God’s children are being killed today in Idlib and in the regime’s dungeons,” Caesar wrote to me, “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 knowledge that the United States is taking action against Assad provides his victims with a measure of hope whose value cannot be quantified. Sanctions alone are not a sufficient policy, but they are an integral component of any effort to pressure the regime on every front — economic, diplomatic, and military. The Trump administration’s policy toward Syria has been rife with contradictions, but Caesar sanctions will be a step in the right direction.
Six years have passed since Caesar first briefed Congress on the war crimes evidence he had risked his own life to assemble. The regime was far weaker then than it is now. Russia was on the sidelines and Iran only beginning its intervention. Aggressive sanctions might have helped bring about a negotiated peace. Yet as Caesar told me, “We saw outrage but little action.” Caesar sanctions cannot bring back the lost opportunities of the past, but they can take advantage of the opportunities that remain.
David Adesnik is a senior fellow and director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD)
Image: Russian Ministry of Defense