The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act went into effect on 17 June 2020 and targets any individual or business making transactions with the Syrian regime. The real objective of the Act seems to be to punish Iran and Hezbollah which have been supporting the Assad regime militarily.
What is the Caesar Act?
The heaviest US sanctions imposed on the Syrian government went into effect on 17 June under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. The act was passed by US Congress in December 2019 and targets any individual or business making transactions with the Syrian regime, particularly through four economic areas: construction, oil, military aircraft, and engineering. The sanctions specifically target those engaged in construction or petroleum and natural gas production with the regime. Sanctions have already been in place targeting the Syrian oil sector since President Obama was in office.
The main difference from previous US and European Union sanctions is that the Caesar act also targets entities outside of Syria. This could be particularly problematic for neighboring countries, the Gulf States, and Europe, which have maintained economic ties with Damascus. Essentially, the legislation warns worldwide institutions that any form of business with the Syrian regime will be prosecuted by the use of denial of access to capital, travel bans to the US and could lead to arrests.
Why has the Caesar Act been passed through U.S. Congress?
The Caesar Act aims to put an end to attacks on Syrian civilians and to bring in a new government which “respects the rule of law and human rights”, suggesting that the US is still seeking the removal of President Bashar Al Assad. The Caesar Act raises a few questions and concerns, namely whether the price will be paid by the civilians who have already endured the repercussions of nine years of civil war. The real objective of the Act seems to be to punish Iran and Hezbollah which have been supporting the Assad regime militarily. Given the upcoming US elections in November, US President Trump may be using it to demonstrate his policy of containing Iran as an asset in his re-election campaign.
The Act is also designed to put pressure on Russia and Russian businesses that have deals with Syria. Other companies may be reluctant to go into business with them due to the sanctions. The legislation is most likely a tool to bring Russia and Assad to the negotiation table in order to pressure them into moving away from Iran. Although unlikely, the Act could also make Russia reconsider its support of Bashar Al Assad who has started to become more of a liability rather than an asset. Assad’s grip on power is shaky given that Idlib continues to be a main opposition stronghold, anti-government protests have started again, and members of his own circle are starting to doubt him. In Latakia, the main regime support stronghold, public figures including MPs, business leaders, and members of the army have all openly criticized the government in the last week.
How does the Caesar Act impact the Syrian people?
The law calls for an end to fighting and to the Assad regime without considering the fact that there is no current alternative. The sanctions will increase the cost of living in a country already facing economic hardship. The expectation is that this will encourage the Syrian people to demand his departure from the Presidency. However, the Syrian people already demanded this in 2011 through a wave of mass anti-government demonstrations which erupted into the civil war. Assad’s grip on power has remained tough throughout, due to Russia’s support.
The new legislation comes at a time when although Assad has emerged victorious militarily, the economic crisis is shaking his hold on power. The cost of war, sanctions, a global pandemic, and the financial crisis in neighboring Lebanon have taken a heavy toll on the Syrian economy. The Syrian pound used to trade at 47 to the dollar before the war, but this week it hit a record low at a rate of 3,000 to the dollar. This was due to people panic selling the Syrian pound in anticipation of the new sanctions. Inflation has already triggered a 100 per cent increase in the price of bread, risking even greater food insecurity in the country. Due to the dire economic situation, anti-government protests have been recorded over the last two weeks in regime-held areas which until now have been loyal to the regime throughout the war. The fact that people are protesting knowing the risks of doing so, indicates the levels of desperation.
What does this mean for the future of Syria?
The Act outlines that the sanctions will be lifted if the criteria are met, including the release of political prisoners, an end to airstrikes targeting civilians, and the return of Syrian refugees. The Assad regime could easily create the illusion that it is meeting these demands by accepting the return of some refugees, offering some pardons and amnesties to political prisoners, and compromise on settling the civil war. Assad will likely take advantage of the fact that re-election will be Trump’s main priority in the coming months and continue his persecution of political opponents when no one is watching.
Looking back at how resilient the regime has been over the years, it is clear that sanctions will not lead to its downfall. It is unlikely that Assad will feel pressured to offer concessions over something that does not directly threaten his grip on power. The government will most likely try to overcome the challenges by establishing trade links with rebel-held areas in the north to fill in the gaps in imports. Turkey has already put the Turkish Lira into circulation in Idlib due to the Syrian Pound plummeting. Russia and the regime could negotiate trade routes with Turkey and offer them concessions elsewhere.
The effects of the sanctions will be devastate what is left of the Syrian economy and worsening the standards of living even further. This could spark even wider civil unrest however, given the pattern, the government will most likely suppress this. Paralyzing the Syrian economy will destabilize a region already being challenged by a drop in oil prices, economic crises, and civil unrest in Iraq and Lebanon.