Will the Caesar Act Change the Syrian Regime’s Behavior without Replacing it?
The list of new American sanctions that were released last week according to the Caesar Act was “only the beginning.” The coming weeks will see some 100 Syrians blacklisted, earning the coming months the apt description, “the summer of Caesar”. The purpose is not regime change, but pushing for a change in its behavior in internal and geopolitical affairs. The key lies in pushing Moscow to join negotiations with Washington over the formation of a “new government that meets American conditions,” including Iran’s pullout from Syria in return for the United States to accept “the legitimacy of Russia’s presence in Syria.”
These are the conclusions that can be drawn from the statements by American officials, most notably Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Joel Rayburn, since the Caesar Act took effect on June 17. The first batch of designations targeted 39 people or entities, including president Bashar Assad personally as well as his wife Asma al-Akhras. The majority of those targeted were included in previous sanctions. Notably missing, however, were former Damascus Governor Bishr al-Sabban and Bashar’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, some of whose companies were blacklisted.
When the sanctions were announced last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that this was "the beginning of what will be a sustained campaign of economic and political pressure to deny the Assad regime revenue and support it uses to wage war and commit mass atrocities against the Syrian people."
Syria has been the frequent target of American sanctions. It was designated for its support for terrorism since the late 1970s and the Syria Accountability Act was introduced in 2003. The Caesar Act, however, takes the sanctions against the country to a whole new level:
First: It has been approved by both Democrats and Republicans at Congress and the two chambers of the Senate. This means it will remain unchanged whether the president is no longer Republic or the Republicans lose their congressional majority.
Second: The fact that it is an act means that the process of imposing sanctions would be faster and would not need to pass through the Treasury Department or other executive orders.
Third: Few evidence was needed, whereas in previous sanctions orders, a lot of evidence was required. Now, all that is needed are a few easily obtained documents.
Fourth: The sanctions not only target Syrians, but any Syrian and non-Syrian entities that violate them.
Fifth: The act goes beyond the military, rights and humanitarian spectrum to cover engineering and infrastructure. This means that major Arab, Chinese or Russian reconstruction companies in Syria will be slapped with American sanctions and frozen out of the western markets.
Sixth: The act does not explicitly call against barring diplomatic or political relations with Damascus, but it does isolate the regime, forcing countries to think twice before resuming or establishing ties with it.
American officials frequently reiterated that their purpose was not regime change. They later added that they wanted it to change its behavior. The distinction here is related to “lessons learned” from the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 experience in Libya. The policy of “regime change” has not only failed, but it does not have American, western or UN support, especially in wake of the new crises sparked by the global coronavirus pandemic. “Regime change” is therefore, the alternative. This was previously proposed to Syria after the assassination of Lebanese former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. It was proposed after the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003. But what “behavior” is Damascus expected to change?
According to American statements, the Caesar Act does not call for the ouster of Assad, but it calls for the government to commit to “conditions”. They are the withdrawal of Iran from Syria, ceasing the sponsoring of terrorism and support to Hezbollah, abandoning chemical weapons, that it stop being a threat to its neighbors, provide conditions for the return of refugees and the displaced, trying and holding war criminals to account and implementing UN Security Council resolution 2254. Added to this list is the release of Americans detained in Syria, a revelation that was made by former national security adviser John Bolton in his new book.
Meeting these “conditions” has become binding for the current Syrian government or any one in the future because annulling the Caesar Act will be a complicated legislative process at Congress. Moreover, there is the realization of Damascus’ reluctance or inability to meet conditions related to its internal or foreign geopolitical affairs, whereby meeting them by the regime would effectively lead to regime change.
Given the above, Washington believes it now has cards to negotiate with Moscow. The Americans are banking on the Caesar Act to deepen the economic crisis and accelerate the collapse of the pound against the dollar, especially amid the ongoing economic crisis in Lebanon and Iran and Arab businessmen’s refraining from investing in Syria, which is only driving up the costs on Russia. This will therefore, prompt it to sit at the negotiations table and “seriously” discuss striking a deal that meets these conditions through a step-by-step approach whereby a concession over a certain condition would be met with an exemption from the Caesar Act.
Sink or swim?
With the mere implementation of the Caesar Act, Russia launched a series of political and media criticism against the “illegal sanctions.” The strongest reaction came from Iran, which issued a slew of condemnations and whose officials carried out numerous contacts with their Syrian counterparts. The two sides have found themselves in the same American sanctions “boat” and they must now “swim” east towards China and other sides to outmaneuver the sanctions.
As it stands, the Caesar Act has pushed Syria further towards Iran and farther from Russia. Its foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, stated that the US was seeking through this law and others before it to “push us to abandon our alliances”, meaning Iran. “Our allies will never abandon us,” he declared. Muallem, who had recently expressed readiness to stand by Egypt against Turkey in Libya, said the Caesar Act is an American attempt to influence the 2021 presidential elections. “President Assad will remain in his post as long as the Syrian people want him to,” he stated.
As the elections draw near, some western countries are encouraging the Syrian opposition to name their candidate. Washington, meanwhile, has said that it was not concerned with the elections. UN envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen also said that his mission does not include the polls.