What Are America’s Sanctions on Syria Good For?

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U.S. sanctions on Syria will not “stop atrocities.”

On Twitter earlier this month, Sen. Chris Murphy defended appeals for U.S. foreign policy restraint against attempts to caricature them as calls for immorally “doing nothing.” Murphy was reacting to a tweet by Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin about U.S. involvement in Syria. Rogin, in turn, responded by asking Murphy what action he supported to “stop mass atrocities,” and cajoling him to “join” proponents of sanctions on Syria in their “attempt to stop mass atrocities.”

“I’m not saying [just] do something,” Rogin wrote to Murphy. “I’m saying do something constructive to stop the atrocities. We must.”

David Adesnik struck a similar note at War on the Rocks earlier this year, arguing, “other than sanctions, there is no option on the table that has the potential to stop at least some of Assad’s atrocities.”

But however much Rogin, Adnesnik, and others might repeat this trope, U.S. sanctions on Syria will not “stop the atrocities.” No one seriously expects they will. And for the sake of an objective that is illusory, these sanctions have a human cost that is real, now.

Washington’s sanctions illustrate much of what is wrong with interventionist U.S. foreign policy generally. In Syria, the United States is using coercive means — unilateral economic sanctions — to mismatched, implausible ends.



All of this is justified by Rogin and others in Washington in moralistic, exhortatory terms — “we have to try.” But without any real prospects for success, “trying” is irresponsible and wrong.

How Did We Get Here?

On Twitter, Rogin was urging Murphy to “join” supporters of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act – known as the Caesar Act – which President Donald Trump signed into law in Dec. 2019 and which went into effect in June 2020. The United States has since announced several batches of sanctions under the Caesar Act and other Syria-related sanctions authorities.

The law is named after “Caesar,” the alias for a Syrian military photographer who defected and smuggled out photo evidence of thousands of deaths in Syrian prisons.

The Caesar Act represents the newest and most expansive set of U.S. sanctions on Syria. The law mandates sanctions on foreign persons who deal significantly with the Syrian government or provide services that facilitate its military activities, aviation sector, and oil and gas industries. It also penalizes the provision of construction and engineering services to the Syrian government, discouraging investment in Syria’s postwar reconstruction.

The Caesar Act’s special force comes from its expansive scope, and the “secondary sanctions” with which it threatens third-country nationals, including would-be investors from Lebanon, Jordan, and the Arab Gulf. U.S. officials have already used the law to warn away investors from the United Arab Emirates. The law is a powerful tool in service of the Trump administration’s broader campaign to isolate the Syrian government politically and economically.

In all likelihood, the impact of the Caesar Act is not measured in the individuals and entities actually named in successive batches of sanctions. Rather, the law’s real impact is the names that do not appear: investors who might otherwise have contributed to Syria’s recovery, but who were deterred. The effect of the law is thus likely to be felt over the medium and long term, as it prevents already bad conditions in Syria from getting better.

In addition to the sectors the Caesar Act names explicitly, the law and other U.S. sanctions also affect legitimate economic activity, including aid to needy Syrians. U.S. officials point to these laws’ exemptions for humanitarian activity in Syria. Yet, humanitarians warn that those exemptions are insufficient, as “overcompliance” by risk-averse banks and other businesses has a chilling effect on aid.

Moreover, Syrian civilians do not survive exclusively on humanitarian aid. They depend also on normal business and trade, as part of an economic system that is complex and whose positive elements cannot all be affirmatively exempted from U.S. sanctions. Even humanitarians rely on this broader economic system to procure goods and services locally. Sanctions that throttle the Syrian economy thus necessarily affect humanitarian aid and civilian welfare generally.

U.S. sanctions seem to have exacerbated Syria’s present crippling economic crisis, which has also resulted from neighboring Lebanon’s financial meltdown, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the toll of the country’s almost decade-long civil war. Now Syria faces possible food shortages and hunger, thanks in part to Western sanctions.

Pie-in-the-Sky Policy Aims

What is the point, then, of these sanctions? How does it benefit the United States to keep Syria poor and miserable?

Rogin will tell you the Caesar Act is an attempt to “stop mass atrocities.” According to the law itself, the sanctions are meant

to compel the government of Bashar al-Assad to halt its murderous attacks on the Syrian people and to support a transition to a government in Syria that respects the rule of law, human rights, and peaceful co-existence with its neighbors.

Those are salutary aims. The Assad government has done terrible, shocking things over the past decade, as it violently suppressed a mostly nonviolent protest movement and then waged a scorched-earth campaign to retake much of the country from various insurgent groups.

Of course, the problem with the law’s aims of halting Syria’s violence and forcing a political transition is that they are impossible, either with the Caesar Act or any other means realistically available. The United States will not somehow force Syria to respect human rights and the rule of law. It will not even compel it to “stop atrocities” in its prisons or on the battlefield.

American policymakers ought to assess the Caesar Act and broader policy aims, then, with that impossibility in mind. Any policy entails costs and trade-offs, after all. Are those costs worth it, measured against what the policy can realistically achieve?

At War on the Rocks, Adesnik complained about how critics of sanctions frame that cost-benefit assessment:

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.

Adesnik argues for using sanctions to “test the hypothesis” that the Syrian government’s limited means will prevent it from launching new offensive action. Meanwhile, he says, “it is far from certain that Caesar sanctions will exact a meaningful toll on the average Syrian’s well-being.” The living conditions of Syrians are already so desperate that “the impact of Caesar sanctions on a typical household may be marginal, if it is felt at all.” (Adesnik omits that those conditions are desperate partly because of other U.S. and Western sanctions, predating the Caesar Act.)

But that “hypothesis” is fantastical. Almost no one truly thinks the Caesar Act and, more broadly, the current U.S. policy of pressure on Damascus will accomplish their stated aims. None of these tactics seem likely to put Damascus under such duress that it would submit to a political transition or reforms tantamount to regime change, or to deter it from attacking the country’s last rebel-held enclaves. The Syrian government’s resources may dwindle further, but it is still likely to devote what little remain to, first and foremost, regime survival and military victory. Even in the government’s lowest, most desperate moments over the past decade, it never conceded or moderated its bloody-minded pursuit of reimposing its writ nationally.

We can’t rule out that economic pressure could just collapse the Syrian state, but that does not seem imminent (and anyway would be a chaotic nightmare for Syrians and disastrous for regional security). And there is nothing to suggest that Syria’s economic enfeeblement will so burden its ally Russia that the latter will impose on Damascus the sort of radical political change that the United States is demanding.

The chances of success for Adesnik’s policy “hypothesis” seem near zero. Meanwhile, the civilian harm done by U.S. sanctions is certain. The odds are 100 percent — it’s happening.

Caesar Act sanctions and the other policy means that the United States has mustered are sufficient to inflict economic pain, after all. But pain should not be an end in itself. Pain is supposed to be used as leverage towards something better. And to realize that something better, these means are obviously inadequate.

Rogin says that Caesar Act sanctions are about “trying to stop mass atrocities.” But you get no points for “trying.” Either the policy works, or it doesn’t.

“Trying” makes sense mostly in inward-looking, domestic political terms, either to satisfy a vocal constituency with ill-advised policy ideas, or just to flatter Americans’ sense of their own morality. Only in U.S. domestic politics do policymakers receive credit solely for means, not ends.

Alternately, for some sanctions advocates, the economic pain may actually be the point, as part of a policy that is entirely punitive. For all its other faults, a policy of revenge is at least logically consistent.

Rogin and others like Adesnik muddle the question of whether the policy will actually work by couching hawkish policy advocacy in sentimental appeals. The Caesar Act’s named association with the Syrian defector “Caesar” is similar, given how it wraps U.S. coercion in Caesar’s personal story and the crimes he revealed. But how does the Caesar Act relate, practically, to the atrocities Caesar documented? The law signals Washington’s condemnation of the Syrian government’s actions. But will it prevent similar acts in the future? Realistically, will it achieve any positive change at all?

This moral posturing comes at a price for beleaguered Syrians. Sanctions advocates profess concern for Syrian civilians. By their own standard, a policy with Syrian collateral damage on this scale is unjustifiable.

Sanctions boosters additionally tend to emphasize that it is mainly Damascus that is to blame for Syria’s present miserable state — a result of the government’s devastating war against its own citizenry. Yet the comprehensive destruction of Syria’s physical and social capital over nearly a decade of war was not something to which the United States was just a spectator. Notably, the United States spent more than $1 billion to arm one side of the war. Or, in another example, it bombed the city of Raqqa into rubble as part of the campaign to defeat the Islamic State.

Today, U.S. sanctions policy is not even a case of the United States writing off Syria and withholding its own money from the country’s reconstruction. No, with the Caesar Act’s secondary sanctions and aggressive U.S. enforcement of other sanctions, Washington is actively intimidating others into not contributing to rebuilding a destroyed Syria.

Put bluntly: Immiserating Syria while performatively and moralistically “trying” like this is psychopathic.

Doing “Something” Harmful

Several years ago at War on the Rocks, Jeremy Shapiro and Andrew Miller authored a defense of what is often derided in policy debates as “doing nothing.” The two described how the U.S. policy process is oriented towards producing can-do, proactive “something” options, even when they may be impracticable and ill-advised. Suggesting inaction, or “nothing,” is discouraged in Washington as Eeyorish and unhelpful. The process thus yields “something” policies based on flawed assumptions and inadequate means.

Sanctions now seem to be Washington’s preferred, low-effort option for doing “something.” Rogin basically said as much, arguing that sanctions on Syria are “literally the least we can do to punish war crimes. It’s exactly one step up from doing nothing.

Now that the Caesar Act is law, the reality is that it is probably here to stay, at least until its statutory five-year sunset. There is no substantial U.S. constituency motivated to advocate sanctions relief for Syria. And November’s presidential elections are unlikely to make a difference: Former Vice President Joe Biden’s advisor Antony Blinken, when pressed by Rogin, affirmed that the law is a “very important tool” to constrain and pressure Damascus.

Yet none of that makes the Caesar Act and a U.S. policy towards Syria that stand to further impoverish and brutalize Syrian society any less harmful and pointless.

So do not allow sanctions advocates to badger you into “joining” them. The Caesar Act and other U.S. sanctions on Syria are just the latest achievement of a Washington policy community that prioritizes “trying” over results — and, in this instance, over the well-being of Syrians stuck in Syria.



Sam Heller is an independent researcher and analyst focused on Syria and the broader Levant. He is based in Beirut. The views expressed here are his own. Follow Sam on Twitter: @AbuJamajem.

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Spc. John Stauffer)