High stakes on Syria as US Caesar Act comes into effect

High stakes on Syria as US Caesar Act comes into effect

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Syria’s President Bashar Assad and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meet in Damascus, Syria, April 20, 2020. (Reuters)

America’s new Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act is named after a Syrian military figure who defected and used thousands of pictures to document the killings and destruction carried out in Syria by the regime of Bashar Assad. It signals America’s re-engagement with a number of strategic issues that started with the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, which Congress passed into law in 2003 to fight Syria’s support for terrorism and to help Lebanon restore its independence.

As of Wednesday, the Caesar Act will target the Assad regime with sanctions, particularly in four economic areas: Oil, construction, engineering, and military aircraft. It also threatens to punish Syria’s allies, such as Iran, Hezbollah (meaning it will impact Lebanon) and Russia. However, the new law gives the US president the right to waive a number of these punitive anti-Syrian measures if he felt doing so would be in line with America’s national interest. It throws up for debate the perennial question of whether a law mandated by the US does in fact punish a regime that is culpable for a series of atrocities, or if the real victims of such retaliatory legislation are the innocent people of the country being penalized.

The first effect of the law is a reconsideration of the future of Assad himself. If the act makes the people of Syria suffer because of the negative impact on their lives — since it will lead to a big increase in the price of many services and commodities — many people will see the president’s departure as a way to end their suffering. Another effect might be to make the US, and President Donald Trump personally, actors to muscle Iran out of Syria and Lebanon. This could happen if both the local leadership in Syria, especially the military, and Russia reduced their dependence on Iran preserving the Assad regime. 

It is obvious that the conflicting role of Hezbollah as a conservative force in Syria and as a disruptive power in Lebanon can be exposed. Hezbollah may actually be forced to focus on Lebanon, since it would lose in a direct confrontation with the US in Syria. But this would be detrimental for Lebanon, as this dangerous Shiite group may do more harm to make up for its strategic losses. Prudently, US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea announced that Washington planned to impose new sanctions against Hezbollah and possibly supporters of the group too. This indicates an American trust that Lebanon will support the Caesar Act, despite early denials by Lebanese officials. This would be a boost for the US as the act’s strategic value would be enhanced as a result. 

The Lebanese political commentator Hanin Ghaddar wrote brilliantly for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on how this act can affirm Lebanon’s independence from the abuse of Hezbollah. She wrote: “At a time when Lebanon cannot afford to lose more of its foreign currency reserves, Central Bank governor Riad Salameh hinted last month that the country is hemorrhaging $4 billion per year due to Hezbollah and other actors smuggling government-subsidized fuel into Syria. Companies involved in these deliveries are already alarmed, and many locals believe that the Caesar Act was purposefully created to target smuggling in both directions — not just fuel going into Syria, but weapons coming into Lebanon.”

Another crucial question is could this act be successful in ending the civil war in Syria? This depends on a number of factors, including the degree of Russia’s support or hesitation in bringing Assad and his opponents into serious negotiations, and also on the US’ assessment over whether or not Assad can be removed peacefully and if such a move would further destabilize the Levant. 

Consequently, the debate over the Caesar Act should shift from the desire to see Assad falling to the implications of his regime’s collapse. One major problem is that the act does not offer a timeframe on change in Syria. This should be done by the judgment of two factors: How much power is Iran losing inside Syria (and hopefully Lebanon) and how many refugees are returning from nearby countries, such as Lebanon and Turkey, to areas that can be viewed as remote from the possibility of renewed fighting. 

Another dilemma is that the Caesar Act does not perceive the nature, the scope or the methods of the Russian response to its execution. Could Russia take action to render it null and void? Yet another contradictory posture could result from the imprecise nature of its enforcement. For instance, there could be restrictions on the operations of the central bank of Syria. These could be ignored in many ways and under many conditions, including humanitarian concerns for many segments of the Syrian population. 

The Caesar Act gives the world a standpoint on Syria — that this civil war must be terminated.

Maria Maalouf

Syria’s agony does not concern Syria alone. However, the Caesar Act gives the world a standpoint on Syria — that this civil war must be terminated. The Damascus regime could respond by dangling some middle-of-the-road solutions, such as a partial settlement of the civil war, an acceptance of the return of some refugees or a longer and more observable armistice. There could be a small-scale pardoning and amnesty of selected regime opponents. Most likely, Syria will try to exploit the vulnerability of Trump ahead of the US’ November presidential election. Trump would not like the American voter to be listening to news reports of fighting in Syria when going to the ballot box. Hence, Assad could renew the attacks on the Syrian opposition and population, since America is not able to intervene militarily. This could be how the Assad regime arranges the defeat of the Caesar Act. 

Ultimately, the success or failure of the Caesar Act depends on Trump’s disposition toward it. He will likely work to make it the manifestation of America’s strong will for all nations, including Syria, to adhere to international human rights standards. And Trump may also strive to associate it with a number of strategic realities — including how to form an embryonic strategic partnership with Russia over the future of Syria and how to force an immediate retreat by Iran — to establish a convincing argument that his containment policy against Tehran is producing gains for America and its allies in the Arab world. This can be an asset in his re-election bid.

  • Maria Maalouf is a Lebanese journalist, broadcaster, publisher and writer. She holds an MA in political sociology from the University of Lyon. Twitter: @bilarakib
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