SEATTLE, Washington — On December 20, 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. Referred primarily as the Caesar Act, this executive order introduced new sanctions on Syria that took effect in June 2020, with the primary goal of “promoting accountability” for actions taken by the Assad regime. According to the U.S. Department of State, this act is not intended to hurt the Syrian people, but rather to “send a clear signal that no foreign business should enter into business with or otherwise enrich such a regime.”The Caesar Act and its Impact on Syria
The Caesar Act
While sanctions against Syria are not new, as both the U.S. and the European Union have been imposing sanctions since the start of the Syrian war back in 2011, the Caesar Act is much broader in its targeting than any sanctions ever seen in the region. This broad scope is intentional, with the express goal of tightening the economic isolation imposed on Syria and the Assad regime. However, this act may be doing more harm than good, both for Syria and for the entire Middle East and North African (MENA) region.
The Risks: Affecting MENA’s Economic Stability
The Caesar Act threatens the economy of the entire region, not just Syria and its allies. The MENA region as a whole is very closely economically linked, with Syria and Lebanon acting as a prime example. Syria’s economy has experienced a recent dive in correspondence with Lebanon’s economy, with the value of both nations’ currency plummeting.
Syrians have been particularly dependent on Lebanon’s banking system throughout the war, leading to close relationships among small businesses and traders between the two nations. The fear of penalties from these new sanctions could very well cause Lebanese banks and businesses to cut off Syrian connections, which would severely worsen the economic situations in both nations.
The Risks: The Act Does Not Address the Situation
The Caesar Act serves to dissuade any genuine attempts to improve the situation. The excessive nature of the act and its penalties threatens to create an incredibly restrictive environment for all individuals and organizations seeking to do business in Syria. This includes individuals in the private sector looking to aid in the rebuilding efforts and those looking to provide humanitarian aid. According to the Syria Justice and Accountability Center, “the restrictions on oil and gas companies from conducting business with Syria may compound existing shortages” of oil and other crucial resources, which in turn benefits “illegal black-market monopolies while negatively affecting ordinary civilians.”
While the act does include certain technical exemptions for humanitarian aid, scholars have agreed that the broadness of the act itself has left countless organizations hesitant to engage in any interactions with Syria for fear of the new sanctions’ penalties. Basma Alloush, policy and advocacy adviser at the Norwegian Refugee Council, noted that there is already a serious shortage of medication amid the global pandemic, and the new sanctions have already begun to further block the flow of essential supplies.
There is a long withstanding history of banks, insurance and shipping companies and sellers that provide humanitarian goods refusing to work with humanitarian NGOs for fear of violating U.S. sanctions. As such, it is likely that the act will exacerbate the negative effects of humanitarian aid in Syria at a time when the country is struggling to recover from a decade-long war while simultaneously grappling with a pandemic.
The Risks: Harming the Syrian Civilian Population
Unfortunately, and despite the express intention of protecting civilians in Syria, the act will inevitably harm the Syrian civilian population. The Assad regime currently still maintains control over the Syrian economy and its institutions, making it practically impossible to economically target the regime without affecting innocent citizens. Aside from the aforementioned effects of halting reconstruction and dissuading humanitarian aid, the Caesar Act will also cut off civilian access to imports of food and other resources, while simultaneously increasing domestic prices for those resources.
At this point, analysts are largely in agreement: Syrian civilians are likely to suffer the most under these new sanctions. Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR), stated it best, “The country is already devastated, and these measures will help to push it over the edge in a way that is highly unlikely to deliver a positive outcome.”
What Else Can Be Done?
First and foremost, it is important to note that research indicates sanctions are not always an effective foreign policy tool. Sanctions are well known to almost always result in unintended consequences, from harming innocent civilians to bolstering and empowering the target regime. Additionally, sanctions alone are highly unlikely to be successful in achieving a significant goal in a short amount of time. According to a 2019 study from the Peterson Institute for International Economics, unilateral sanctions are consistently unsuccessful, seeing success only 13% of the time. Other studies have found the success rate of broad, unilateral sanctions to be as low as 5%.
Recent policy recommendations draw attention to two major characteristics of effective sanctions. The CATO Institute states successful sanctions must include incentives that provide “clear expectations and ‘off‐ramps’ that are politically viable to the targeted nation.” Additionally, sanctions must also “leverage the removal of ineffective sanctions on regimes” to begin building trust in local communities. While these two characteristics are currently absent from the Caesar Act, its inclusion could seriously improve the effectiveness of these new sanctions. So, what can citizens do? While supporting humanitarian programs is crucial, it is also vital to start contacting representatives with policy recommendations. By bringing this information to the hands of policymakers, a more effective policy toward Syria can be developed that does not come at the cost of the civilian population.