New US sanctions aim to cripple Syria’s al-Assad even further

Caesar Act sanctions named for Syrian military defector who documented systematic torture in Assad-controlled prisons.

Caesar Senate armed services
A Syrian military defector using the pseudonym Caesar wears a blue hood to conceal his identity while testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington, DC, in March [Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP] [AFP]

The battered Syrian economy faces another blow on Wednesday when the United States imposes punishing new sanctions that aim to further weaken the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Caesar Act, passed as part of an annual defence spending bill, contains the most severe sanctions on the government since the Syrian civil war began nine years ago.

What are the new penalties?

Existing US sanctions froze Syrian state assets as well as those held by dozens of companies and individuals tied to the government of al-Assad, including military and security personnel. They also restricted new investments, exports, sales or supply of services to Syria by any American national or resident.

The latest measures would target players anywhere in the world, including in the Gulf and Europe, who attempt to aid the al-Assad regime in its reconstruction efforts. Specifically, the measures would penalise any foreign company or donor who “knowingly, directly or indirectly, provides significant construction or engineering services to the Government of Syria”.

The measures would also affect companies in neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, a move aimed at those regularly accused of smuggling goods into Syria.

How did the measures come about?

The measures are collectively known as the Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act, or Caesar Act for short. Earlier attempts to pass the legislation in the US foundered, so the measure was incorporated in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, which was signed by US President Donald Trump in December of 2019.

Where did the name come from?

Caesar is the code name of a Syrian military forensic photographer who began saving horrifying images of torture victims and war crimes beginning in 2011, documenting the systematic torture and executions of 11,000 Syrians in government-controlled prisons.

In 2013, Ceasar fled Syria and smuggled some 55,000 photos out of the country on thumb drives to Qatar via Jordan. He took the evidence to the US and, in 2014, testified before the US Congress. He returned in March to plead before the US Senate Armed Services Committee that new sanctions be enforced.

“Killing has increased in the same places and in the same ways and at the hands of the very same criminals,” he said.

“And the reason, simply, is that the Assad regime considered the inaction of the international community and the mere statements of condemnation as a green light,” he told US senators. 

Who sponsored the legislation?

The measure was first sponsored by Congressman Eliot Engel, a Democrat from the state of New York. The bill’s original co-sponsors included 36 Democratic and Republican legislators. On Monday, the measure’s sponsors and other top Republicans and Democrats from the congressional foreign affairs committees called on Trump to vigorously enforce the new measures once they come into effect on June 17. 

“The regime and its sponsors must stop the slaughter of innocent people and provide the Syrian people a path toward reconciliation, stability and freedom,” they said in a statement.

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A woman reacts as she looks at gruesome images of dead bodies taken by a photographer, code name Caesar, at the UN headquarters in New York [File: Lucas Jackson/Reuters]

Are the sanctions likely to have the intended effect?

Earlier sanctions imposed by the US and its allies combined with government corruption and infighting, a pandemic, and a financial crisis in neighbouring Lebanon – Syria’s main link to the outside world – have left the country teetering on the brink.

In recent days, Syrians have marched through the streets of government-controlled parts of the country to protest rising prices and the currency’s collapse. In some areas, prices rise several times a day, forcing many shops to close and leaving such staples as sugar, rice and medicine in short supply. This week, the Syrian currency dropped to a record 3,500 pounds to the dollar on the black market – compared with 700 at the beginning of the year.

How has Syria responded to the pressure?

The Syrian government has called the sanctions “economic terrorism” aimed at starving the Syrian people. Syrian legislator Muhannad Haj Ali, who has been under US and European sanctions for years, told The Associated Press news agency that his country survived past economic crises and will overcome the Caesar Act.

“What the terrorists and the Americans couldn’t take on the battlefield, where we paid with our blood and wounds, they won’t be able to gain politically, no matter how much pressure they exert,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies