Despite Caesar Act’s crippling effects, regime says it can cope

The US legislation targets any individual or entity that lends support to the Syrian regime.
Monday 01/06/2020
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with army soldiers in al-Habit on the southern edges of the Idlib province. (Reuters)
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with army soldiers in al-Habit on the southern edges of the Idlib province. (Reuters)

LONDON –Tough new US sanctions against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad are due to enter into effect this month under a law known as the Caesar Act.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the signing into law of portions of the act by President Donald Trump in December 20, 2019, “an important step in promoting accountability for the large-scale atrocities Bashar al Assad and his regime have carried out in Syria.”

The US legislation targets any individual or entity that lends support to the Syrian regime in its alleged war crimes against the Syrian population.

Damascus residents fear the law’s implementation may worsen already deteriorating living conditions.

The Syrian regime is downplaying the bill and saying that the country will overcome it with the help of allies and a policy of resilience.

A number of Syrian operated industries, including those related to infrastructure, military maintenance and energy production, are targeted by the legislation.

It also targets individuals and businesses who provide funding or assistance to Assad. Iranian and Russian entities are singled out for their governments’ support of Assad in the Syrian war.

“The law provides for sanctions and travel restrictions on those who provide support to members of the Assad regime, in addition to Syrian and international enablers who have been responsible for, or complicit in serious human rights abuses in Syria,” said Pompeo

While analysts said the legislation was a far-reaching move against Assad and its allies, some questioned whether it would be effective in changing the dynamics in the country and expressed concern that regular citizens would be bear the cost.

“Anything that is meant to curb what the regime is doing, I think is fine,” said Bente Scheller, director of the Middle East office of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, adding that the US act is unique from European Union sanctions in that it also “addresses Iran and Russia.”

However, Scheller noted that the indirect sanctions “means civilians maybe will be hit hard by the…and that in a situation in which the economy anyway is ailing, in which they have a financial crisis due to the situation in Lebanon… [and where] more than 30 million people in Syria are in need of international aid [including] in government areas.”

“The regime cannot be trusted to deliver aid even if it is given the funds to do so. However the sanctions for [the regime]… will make sure less will be coming into Syria,” she said.

“And [the regime] will always blame it on the sanctions and, therefore, I think it has a potential to be perceived inside Syria as something that is not directed towards the right people.”

While the US legislation imposes fresh sanctions on entities conducting business with the Syrian government and its military and intelligence agencies, it also encourages negotiations by allowing the US president to waive sanctions if there is meaningful diplomatic progress or if violence against civilians ceases.

In neighbouring Lebanon, prominent political figures are likely to be targeted alongside Iran-backed Hezbollah.

In recent months, Hezbollah has faced renewed pressure to enact reforms, such as ending smuggling along the Syria-Lebanon border and moving towards disarmament, in order to avoid the catastrophic US sanctions.

Gebran Bassil, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), recently blamed “de facto forces” for the illegal smuggling along the borders, in an apparent dig at the powerful armed organisation.

Hezbollah has long been involved in the Syrian war and maintains military bases and training centres inside Syrian territories near the border with Lebanon. Diesel and flour smuggling is carried out through illegal crossings from Lebanon to Syria.

The Caesar Act is named after a former photographer for the Syrian military who smuggled thousands of photographs that document the torture of prisoners in Syrian jails.