“Caesar Act”: USA wants to bring Syria to its knees by tougher sanctions

by Karin Leukefeld, Bonn and Damascus

The sanctions imposed on Syria by the West have had devastating consequences for the civilian population. They are to be used against the Assad government, whose overthrow by military means did not succeed. Now the USA is tightening the thumbscrews with the “Caesar Act”.

The Syrian government controls 70 % of the country and partly cooperates with the Syrian Kurds in northeastern Syria – under Russian mediation. Nevertheless, the country is prevented from starting the necessary reconstruction after the destructive war years. Not only is there no international aid for reconstruction, but also states such as Russia, China, Iran, India and the Gulf States, that want to support the country in its reconstruction, are to be prevented from doing so by the “Caesar Act”. Particularly affected are Syria’s direct neighbours: Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, for whom trade with Syria is vital for their own economy and national security.
The Syrian government condemned the new sanctions as “economic terrorism”. Unilateral economic coercive measures would violate international law and international humanitarian law. According to a statement by the Syrian Foreign Ministry, quoted by the Syrian news agency SANA, the measures are based on “false statements by those who are hostile to the Syrian people”.
Furthermore, the Syrian ambassador in Moscow, Riad Haddad, condemned the sanctions as “medical terrorism”. In view of the global corona pandemic, such measures were inhumane. Syria, he said, also needed medicine and technical equipment to protect its population. The new sanctions package was also aimed at Syria’s allies in the Persian Gulf, Haddad continued. The sanctions were intended to block foreign trade, domestic trade and joint investment projects with the Syrian government as well as loans and remittances, Haddad said. “Nobody should invest in Syria, and anyone who intends to do so should seek permission from the US”. Haddad further said that he saw the danger that Syria would be divided by the sanctions and pointed out that the “Caesar Act” would not apply in the northeast of Syria, which is controlled by the US army and the Syrian Kurds allied with it.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reiterated that Iran would deepen its economic relations with Syria, and that the Syrian-Iranian credit line would be maintained. Zarif, who met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for bilateral talks in Moscow on 16 June, told Russian media that they were preparing another meeting with Russia and Turkey in Astana format. The economic pressure on Syria was also discussed between Iran and Russia.
China and Russia have so far not officially commented on the US Caesar Act. Both countries are closely allied with Syria politically, as well as economically and Russia also militarily. The US administration has openly stated that the “Caesar Act” is also intended to put pressure on Syria’s allies Russia, China and Iran.1 
The new US economic sanctions against Syria entered into force on 17 June 2020. The “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act”, or “Caesar Act” for short, is embedded in the US national defence budget for 2020 and is used by the US administration as a foreign policy instrument against Syria and its allies.
The law was an “important step in promoting accountability for the large-scale atrocities Bashar al Assad and his regime have carried out in Syria”, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced immediately after US President Donald Trump signed the law on 21 December 2019.2
The law would provide the US administration “tools to help end the horrific and ongoing conflict in Syria”. “It also holds accountable those responsible for the widespread death of civilians and for numerous atrocities including the use of chemical weapons”, Pompeo continued. The Caesar Act “sends a clear signal that no external actor should enter into business with or otherwise enrich such a regime”, he said.
The new US sanctions package is aimed at individuals, institutions, companies and states that do business with the Syrian government. Officially, the targets are said to be the Syrian president, the government, the military and intelligence services. In reality, however, it affects Syria’s largely state-run economy in the energy, transport and agricultural sectors, as well as the state-run healthcare system and all state-owned manufacturing companies.
Alleged exceptions for the medical and humanitarian sector will hardly have any effect, as companies or civil society organisations are reluctant to start projects in Syria from the outset due to the unclear and complicated application procedures. Many aid organisations practised “self-censorship”, explained Bassma Alloush of the Norwegian Refugee Council to the internet portal Al Monitor. Aid organisations were afraid of the risk, and if there was a danger of falling under US sanctions, they would withdraw.
Alloush called the “Caesar Act” “salt on the wound” of the Syrian population, which had been suffering from the war for years. “Now to … say, you can’t rebuild for another five years because of Caesar and because we think it’s going to create regime change or accountability or justice – that’s where I disagree”, Alloush said.

International criticism of unilateral sanctions

Criticism of unilaterally imposed economic sanctions by the EU and the US administration comes from all over the world. Syrian church representatives have been pointing out for years the serious consequences for the civilian population that has been severely affected by the war. At the beginning of the year, an association of Syrian non-governmental organisations, foundations and individuals appealed to the UN Secretary-General and called on him to stand up against the sanctions. Signature lists and protests by committed civil society all over the world, however, went unheard in Washington, Brussels, London, Paris and Berlin, as did the numerous studies presented worldwide on the consequences of economic sanctions in general and against Syria in particular.
These include a 2016 study by the UN Commission on Economic and Social Affairs in West Asia ESCWA3 and a report by Algerian diplomat Idriss Jazairy, the recently deceased UN Special Rapporteur on the Effects of Unilateral Coercive Measures.4 

Syria in the gray zone

The note that the unilateral EU and US sanctions should lead to a division of Syria is confirmed by the remarks made at the “Syria in the Gray Zone” meeting held at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington in November 2019.5
Dana Stroul of the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy explained the US administration’s strategy in Syria, where the aim is to keep both Russia and Iran in check in Syria’s “gray zone”. The “architecture of economic sanctions” is part of the “Trump administration’s campaign to exert maximum pressure on Iran”. Reconstruction aid could be provided through “stabilisation aid” in northeastern Syria, the “resource-rich economic and agricultural powerhouse of Syria”, which the US administration was claiming “through the US military with its local partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces […]”. The US administration also has influence on “the international financial institutions, and (through) cooperation with the Europeans” one has a “card in hand” to force “the Assad regime” to make concessions. It needs to be impeded, said Stroul, that “reconstruction aid and technical expertise arrive in Syria”.

Confrontation in the UN Security Council

The political and humanitarian situation in Syria was discussed in the UN Security Council on 16 June 2020. The economic distress in the country was one of the topics. The massive decline of the Syrian pound towards the US dollar within a few days of the beginning of June has led to an enormous surge in the price of food and medicines. According to the World Food Programme (WFP) prices in Syria have risen by more than 100 per cent in the span of a year. The unilateral coercive measures and sanctions are hampering the reconstruction of national production because the purchase of spare parts, new machinery, and raw materials is obstructed. Because there is no improvement, no jobs are being generated with which the workers can feed their families. Syria’s close connections to its neighbours Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon are such that the crisis in Syria, deliberately perpetuated by the Western states, is also leading to ongoing economic crises among its neighbours.
As many times before, Russia and China had called for the lifting of unilateral sanctions against Syria at the last monthly UN Security Council consultations on Syria. The concrete reason for this was the health threat to the population in April and May posed by the corona pandemic. UN Secretary General António Guterres had requested that all states should cooperate and suspend their wars and battles to protect themselves from the corona virus.
The representatives of the US, Great Britain, France and Germany are not willing to lift the sanctions against Syria. In March, the German UN diplomat Jürgen Schulz had already rejected a respective appeal by Russia. The sanctions were “not targeted against the population”, but “against the leadership in Damascus […], which was guilty of the severest human rights crimes imaginable”, said Schulz. “The human rights situation in Syria is solely the result of the Damascus policy.”6

Caesar and the international humanitarian law

The new US sanctions law is named after the Syrian military photographer “Caesar”, who in 2013 smuggled thousands of photographs of bodies from Syrian military prisons with the assistance of a support troop under the same name. Allegedly the dead were prisoners tortured to death.
However, there are strong indications that the dead may also have been victims of attacks, abductions and fighting. All the dead who have been found by the Syrian civil defence or military since the beginning of the war in 2011 are documented in military hospitals, as to the author was confirmed in numerous conversations in Syria.
After his escape, “Caesar” did not turn to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), advocating for prisoners, disappeared persons and victims of torture since its foundation, with the photographic material. In Syria, the ICRC has been working for decades and since 2017 has also participated in negotiations between armed opposition groups and the Syrian government to exchange prisoners or search for disappeared persons.
The work of the ICRC is based on the Geneva Convention and the clear rules of international humanitarian law, and is neutral, impartial, and independent. The ICRC has developed a guide on the subject of death in captivity.7
But this was not what “Caesar” and his supporters were interested in. They showed the photos to French reporter Garance La Caisne. “Caesar” told her his story which the journalist published media-effective in a book.8
Invitations to “Caesar” followed at the highest political level in the US and Europe. The photos were shown internationally at exhibitions, in the UN, and in the EU Parliament. In a “first criminal trial worldwide” opened by the Oberlandesgericht Koblenz against two presumed former employees of the Syrian intelligent service the photos were used as evidence.9 
Under ICRC rules, that would presumably not have been possible. The protection and dignity of the victims, including their families, prohibit under international humanitarian law the unauthorized presentation of such photos in public. The elucidation of the events behind the pictures would be tedious, lengthy and could lead to a multifaceted result.
“Caesar” was then supported by the US-based “Syrian Emergency Task Force” (SETF), which handed over the photos to the US secret service FBI, that verified them as authentic.10
Since 2014, SETF has been intensively lobbying the US Senate and Congress for the new sanctions law “Caesar Act”. The Syrians should be happy about this, SETF director Mouaz Moustafa told the internet portal Al Monitor: “It should be a comfort to Syrian civilians because it is coming to punish those that are forcing them to live in poverty.”

Money-heavy lobby for the “Caesar Act”

In addition to the “Syrian Emergency Relief Operations Command (Task Force)”, a number of other organisations campaigned in Washington for the passage of the “Caesar Act”. The groups “Americans for a Free Syria” and “Citizens for a Secure America”, registered in the USA as non-profit organisations, have been campaigning for the “Caesar Act” for years, according to an article in “Foreign Lobby”. The Internet portal examines the work of foreign lobby groups in Washington and provides access to the $500 million “foreign influence industry in Washington”.11
Lobby groups must register in the USA and disclose their activities. The lobbyists were particularly campaigning for the Syrian central bank to be placed on the US sanctions list as a “money laundering operation”. The spokesman of “Americans for a Free Syria”, Thomas George, who is registered as a lobbyist in the USA, told Pecquet that the Syrian central bank is the “most important instrument for enriching the oligarchy in Syria to the detriment of the Syrian people”. The group has spent $78,000 since 2017 to promote the Sanctions Act in the US Congress and the US Government.
According to the Foreign Lobby, the “Citizens for a Secure America” paid $330,000 to the company of lobbyist Brian Ballard between April 2018 and September 2019 to campaign for a tougher sanctions law against Syria. Ballard, who was for a long time the most important lobbyist for Donald Trump, is considered the “most powerful lobbyist in Trump’s Washington”, according to Politico magazine. When he spoke, “the wallets of influential donors in Florida opened up”.12
Voices such as those of the Lebanese ambassador to the USA, Gabriel Issa, are having a hard time making their voices heard against the money-heavy sanctions advocates. For Lebanon, trade with Syria and the urgent reconstruction of the war-ravaged neighbouring country means an important recovery and stabilisation of the Lebanese economy. For this reason, they are trying to keep the impact of the sanctions on Lebanon “as low as possible”, Issa explained to “Foreign Lobby”.
This is also too much for the advocates of sanctions. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who announced the first part of the target persons and companies on 17 June 2020, made it clear that, no matter where in the world, “anyone who does business with any of the listed persons or companies can be sanctioned themselves”. The “campaign” will continue in the coming weeks and months and “target every individual and company that supports the Assad regime”. Pompeo expressly pointed out that the USA is conducting its “campaign of economic and political pressure in full cooperation [...] especially with our European partners”. They had “renewed their own sanctions against the Assad regime […] only three weeks ago”.13    •

1  www.state.gov/passage-of-the-caesar-syria-civilian-protection-act-of-2019/
2  www.state.gov/passage-of-the-caesar-syria-civilian-protection-act-of-2019/
3  theintercept.com/document/2016/09/28/humanitarian-impact-of-syria-related-unilateral-restrictive-measures/
4  reliefweb.int/report/world/report-special-rapporteur-negative-impact-unilateral-coercive-measures-enjoyment-humandeutsch.rt.com/der-nahe-osten/89109-un-botschafter-zu-syrien-einseitige/
5  www.csis.org/analysis/syria-gray-zone
7 www.icrc.org/en/publication/4126-guidelines-investigating-deaths-custody
8 www.chbeck.de/le-caisne-codename-caesar/product/16128742
9  www.lto.de/recht/hintergruende/h/olg-koblenz-1ste919-folter-prozess-auftakt-syrien-assad-geheimdienst-voelkerstrafrecht/

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