Will More Syria Sanctions Hurt the Very Civilians They Aim to Protect?
Next week, the U.S. Treasury is expected to announce the first tranche of sanctions associated with the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, the most expansive legislation yet in an already stifling campaign of U.S. sanctions targeting the Syrian authorities.
In Washington, policymakers and Syrian-American groups have praised the law as a step toward accountability for the Assad government’s crimes. Yet, without robust safeguards and a far more coherent overall U.S. policy, we fear the Caesar Act risks falling into a trap, hurting the very civilians it aims to protect while largely failing to affect the Syrian government itself.
Passed by the Senate in December 2019, the Caesar Act draws its name from the Syrian army defector who smuggled out more than 50,000 photographs evidencing industrialized torture in Syrian prisons. Syrian-American advocacy groups spearheaded the law’s inception and introduction into Congress in 2016, eventually gaining bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate. The bill’s promise, indeed, was alluring: Its architects proposed to ratchet up economic pressure on the Assad government in ways that would punish war criminals, extract political concessions, and — hopefully — help bring about a long-sought political transition.
If the Caesar Act’s political framing was clearcut, the law itself could hardly be more complex. American sanctions on Syria have piled up in layers since 1979 and massively accelerated with the start of Syria’s uprising and the ensuing crackdown in 2011. Within that continuum, the Caesar Act’s novelty lies in its vast scope. Previous measures have targeted a mix of individual actors and selected sectors, and have applied almost exclusively to Syrian and American entities. By contrast, the Caesar Act promises to slap so-called “secondary sanctions” onto businesses of any nationality that are found transacting with sanctioned actors in multiple sectors of Syria’s economy — notably energy and construction. As such, the bill aims to deepen Damascus’ isolation by deterring investment by any businesses from Beirut to Dubai to Beijing.
Until now, the international debate on the Caesar Act — and on sanctions more broadly — has tended to obscure the law’s complexity rather than reckon with it. Proponents correctly maintain that sanctions give policymakers a desperately needed form of leverage where they otherwise have little. In arguing this case, however, proponents have typically overstated sanctions’ power as a political tool while overlooking how sanctions hurt innocent Syrians.
Detractors have veered to the opposite extreme: As Syria’s economy deteriorates, a growing chorus of observers — including representatives of the United Nations and Western non-governmental organizations — have denounced sanctions as not just ineffective but also inhumane. Yet, such voices often undermine themselves by implying that sanctions represent the primary obstacle to recovery in Syria while neglecting to acknowledge Damascus’ role in the systematic destruction of Syria’s economy.
Among ordinary Syrians inside the country and in neighboring Lebanon, the conversation tends to be far less black and white. We interviewed Syrian economists, non-governmental organization workers, researchers, and small-scale businesspeople who discussed sanctions not with certainty but with ambivalence and anxiety.
While many believe the Assad government deserves to be economically punished, they simultaneously warn of sanctions’ mounting toll on Syrian civilians. Though none of these interlocutors were certain what the Caesar Act’s impact would be, they all feared it would push Syria’s ruined economy deeper into misery while failing to either alter Assad’s behavior or even inflict real pain on those the legislation targets. A Damascus-based businessman voiced a common perspective: “Sanctions will help prevent Syria from achieving any form of recovery. In the meantime, those insiders who have been sanctioned are only getting wealthier.”
Indeed, for all the confidence in narratives regarding the Caesar Act, virtually no one — including policymakers — can quite explain what the law will do. This ambiguity relates, in part, to the act’s vast scope, which will demand global mechanisms for monitoring and enforcement far beyond those required for previous measures.
There is also the question of how, exactly, the Caesar Act will affect an economy already ravaged by violence, plundered by Damascus and its allies, and stifled by preexisting sanctions. The impact of Syria’s war economy is ubiquitous and shows no signs of dissipating: Law and order remain absent while corruption is more rampant and disruptive than ever before, creating severe risks and uncertain returns for all who would dare do business there. Syria’s market has become so toxic that most foreign investors — and many Syrian ones — already stay far away from it.
As a result, the Caesar Act’s true force may lie less in its immediate impact and more in its long-term implications. The law’s five-year sunset clause means that these measures are likely to stick until 2025 — possibly longer. In principle, the president could suspend the sanctions sooner if Damascus and its allies fulfill a set of seven criteria. However, several requirements — including “releasing all political prisoners” and “taking verifiable steps to establish meaningful accountability” — are so unrealistic as to render this stipulation meaningless.
As long as it’s in force, the Caesar Act will powerfully discourage all possible investors who might consider wading back into Syria’s market to undertake even benign economic activity. This group includes not just foreign actors — such as Lebanese and Emirati companies — but also Syrian businesspeople in the diaspora. “Wealthy expats won’t come back as long as sanctions are there,” said the same Damascus-based businessman. “They all have business interests abroad, which they won’t risk by investing in Syria.”
The impact will go far beyond deterring individual companies, trickling down to ordinary Syrians seeking to get on with their lives. For instance, the Caesar Act targets Syria’s construction sector, which has sparked concerns among aid organizations working to support small-scale infrastructural rehabilitation — from fixing up damaged water networks to helping rebuild bombed-out schools or apartments.
Perhaps most importantly, by further isolating Syria, the Caesar Act threatens to prolong and intensify the country’s ongoing macroeconomic free fall. Between May and June 2020, Syria’s currency lost more than 50 percent of its value. Price fluctuations have been so severe as to force many traders to close up shop while they wait for the currency to stabilize. An activist in Rural Damascus, the agricultural area surrounding the capital city, summed up the mood around her: “Everyone is just waiting in fear until the prices settle. People are hopeless: They expect things will get worse and worse, and see no hope of any change for the better.”
Meanwhile, ordinary civilians who survived years of horrendous conflict now fear hunger more than violence. Begging has flourished, as has crime. A woman living in the central Syrian city of Hama, a relative of one of this article’s authors, described the relentless anxiety related to trying to feed her family: “We couldn’t buy apples last season. People don’t remember the taste of meat.”
Medicine, too, has been vanishing from the shelves as the Syrian pound’s tailspin has prevented importers from bringing the raw materials needed to manufacture drugs into Syria. A graduate student in the coastal province of Latakia described the grim experience of visiting a pharmacy earlier this month: “It scared me, seeing the desperate faces of people going from one pharmacy to another trying to find medicines for their loved ones. People’s lives are collapsing.”
The Caesar Act does contain exemptions intended to insulate humanitarian activity from the law’s otherwise sweeping scope. In truth, however, nobody knows how well this approach will function: The very term “humanitarian” is a hazy one, particularly in a context where civilians’ life-and-death needs range from food and medical assistance to repairing their water and electricity supply. Moreover, the current system through which non-governmental organizations can obtain permits to facilitate their work entails an opaque, heavily bureaucratic process that may cause months of delays — and sometimes ends in rejection.
Adding to this situation is the problem of “over-compliance,” whereby banks and businesses steer clear of even legitimate transactions for fear of running afoul of sanctions. “Working in Syria means mountains of paperwork and a great deal of risk,” said another Damascus-based businessman. “If you’re an outsider, why invite the headache?” This issue already bedevils both the aid sector and private businesses. The Caesar Act will only add to the complexity.
Thus, while it is clear enough that the Caesar Act will add another layer to Syria’s humanitarian nightmare, its implications for Damascus remain ambiguous. Insiders themselves are already sanctioned yet continue to dominate all of the most lucrative sectors of Syria’s economy. More sweeping measures will have little direct impact on such figures. On the contrary, some Syrian economists and businessmen warn that the Caesar Act could actually increase Assad cronies’ chokehold on the country by further undermining small Syrian businesses that lack the political connections needed to survive in an increasingly closed-off economy.
These dynamics raise questions about how, exactly, this new law would bring about meaningful political change. In private, American policymakers voice the hope that the Caesar Act would ratchet up the country’s suffering in ways that might create fissures within the ruling elite or increase Russian pressure on Damascus to reform in hopes of attracting Western aid dollars. Yet, Syria’s entire ruling circle is implicated in terrible crimes and unlikely to risk destabilizing the current order. Indeed, there is little historic precedent — in Syria or elsewhere — to suggest that sanctions would force a political transition. Meanwhile, Moscow has continually proven its inability to extract meaningful concessions from its client in Damascus. There is no convincing reason to imagine this pattern would change now.
This is not to suggest that the Caesar Act should somehow be repealed or that other sanctions should be abruptly lifted. No such reversal is forthcoming; even if it were, such unilateral concessions would carry immense costs as they would politically and economically bolster Assad and his ruling circle.
Rather, with the Caesar Act just days from implementation, now is the time for everyone — whether they support or oppose the law itself — to escape this binary debate and grapple much more seriously with how best to limit the law’s unintended consequences.
A first step would be to expand and more explicitly define the scope of the humanitarian exemption to include vital activities beyond emergency food and medical aid such as rehabilitating electrical infrastructures or repairing and equipping schools and hospitals. A second step would be to pilot and, over time, fine-tune a mechanism through which to collect, review, and act upon feedback from humanitarian organizations regarding the Caesar Act’s impact. While the latter may seem to be common sense, it would require far more honesty and self-criticism from policymakers — and far more precise input from humanitarians — than has before now been the norm.
Ultimately, sanctions are Washington’s primary source of leverage in Syria. However, leverage is only useful when paired with a clear and realistic overall strategy. For now, Washington continues to speak the language of ill-defined and implausible goals, from securing a political transition to evicting Iranian forces. Absent serious reconsideration of what can be achieved through this tool, the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act may prove little more than a policy of economic escalation by default — a box-checking exercise for which ordinary Syrians will pay the price.
Basma Alloush is a Syrian humanitarian advocacy professional in the United States. Alex Simon is the director of the Syria Program with Synaps.
Image: Russian Ministry of Defense