Over the past few years, series of UN economic sanctions were imposed upon the Assad regime, in response to the regime’s violations against civilians. However, today after nine years of the Syrian revolution, it has become clear that those sanctions had no effect on the Syrian regime. Instead, they aggravated its brutality, whether on the battlefronts or in the dungeons of the security departments.
Today, the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act enters into force, after four years of being introduced as a draft law. The Act went through many complicated phases until it was formally approved by the United States. These phases began when one of the Syrian officers put his life on the line, attempting to escape with 55 thousand pictures of 11 thousand detainees in the Syrian regime’s prisons, and ended with the approval of the House and Senate.
The Act is supposed to constitute a milestone in the history of the sanctions against the Syrian regime, its considerable mark will be mostly reflect negatively on the civilians inside Syria.
In this report, “Daraj” raises a vital question about this law’s ability to disturb the Syrian regime’s military machinery, or whether it can in fact overburden its security branches economically. This question forms to the backdrop of the spirit of the law, and it’s supposed basic objective.
Karam Shaar, an economics professor and researcher at the Middle East Institute in Washington, finds that the law enforcement mechanism is the only way to determine its true outcomes. He also draws attention to previous academic studies that analyzed the outcomes of economic sanctions on the policies of countries that have been sanctioned, such as North Korea, Sudan and other countries. These studies also monitored the ability of sanctions to change the conduct of governments.
The studies found that sanctions have no effect on the conduct of the governments, and the same goes for the Syrian regime law in front of Caesar Act. However, this Act may exacerbate the regime’s brutality even further, as it finds itself backed into a corner, with no other choice.
“The crucial part of the Caesar Act does not lie in the words of the law itself, but the mechanism of its enforcement. Many laws were formulated in a specific form, only to be enforced into another”, Shaar told Daraj.
Shaar added that if the United States wanted to rigorously enforce the law, its consequences would be terrible for the regime in Syria. He also believes that the greatest hope of these sanctions is to force the regime into negotiations, adding that “whoever imposed the sanctions does not want the ruling regime in Syria to collapse, and then to rebuild it, as this will be costly. Therefore, it is better to reform the regime from the inside and push it towards negotiation.”
Shaar considers that if the objective of these sanctions is to push the regime to collapse, they will fail, regarding the ability of these sanctions to push the regime towards negotiation.
Pushing the Regime Towards Negotiation
“Caesar Act may not be able to stop the military machinery by itself, but it can act as a catalyst that pushes the regime’s allies to cease their support towards it until it enters into a political solution,” the economic advisor and researcher, Dr. Osama Al-Qadi, explains.
Al-Qadi believes that the law constitutes some kind of pressure to enter into a political solution, but it will not necessarily stop the military machinery of the Syrian regime. Simultaneously however, it could place pressure on Russia at least to force the regime to enter into a political solution, in order to let the rest of the countries share in the reconstruction efforts and obtain their long-awaited economic wealth, from the Russian side over the five years since they engaged in the battle in September 2015.
He also stated that, “if the Syrian regime continued to act with political recklessness, without caring about the sufferings of the Syrians, it could continue with the killing machine using Iranian support. However, its allies must force it to enter into a political solution, especially as the Russians are looking for a political deal to get out of the Syrian quicksand”.
What does the word “negotiation” mean in the Syrian case? From the first day of the revolution, the Syrian regime had established “national dialogue circles”, gathering its supporters to open discussions around non- sovereignty issues, that do not address detainees or the state of public freedoms, nor the violations of the army or the necessity to dismantle the security branches. Moreover, none of the opposition figures took part in these discussions.
On the other hand, since the first day of the revolution and till now, Assad upholds a standardized discourse―which apparently he does not want to change―that is infused with hatred and absolute antagonism to Turkey, the Gulf States, Europe, America, the United Nations Security Council, and the international community. Moreover, he makes it clear that he will keep fighting battles until he “restores the very last inch of Syria,” and succeeding in keeping intact what he calls the “fort of resistance.”
Such discourse has already bored the regime’s supporters, before its opponents, as well as its allies―such as Russia―, not to mention the countries that definitely want the regime to fall. Moreover, these slogans are now just mere words that can no longer be applicable or meaningful in the hands of a continuously eroding regime.
Caesar Act seems to be the only hope to push the regime towards choosing its path; whether to continue to disintegrate, which will eventually bring this regime down, alongside the complete destruction of Syria’s economic “wellness,” or otherwise to admit, at least, that there is an opposition with demands that it has been calling for, over the last ten years, and to come to the negotiating table to discuss such demands under the pressure of its allies.
Al-Qadi explains that the Syrian economy is now so extremely fragile that any external incident will increase its suffering. Caesar’s law will definitely affect the Syrian economy but the greatest impact will be caused due to the economic paralysis that most of the Syrian economic sectors have been facing for over nine years.
Moving towards a quick political solution, is not included in the policy of the regime which doesn’t care about the pain and suffering of the Syrians, and believes that it is fighting global imperialism. Moreover, following the law enforcement, it is unlikely that the regime will be incapable of fighting more battles. However, al-Qadi explains that the pace of these fights will decline, because the regime will not be able to wage huge wars like it used to do before. Thus, it may remain in a hit-and-run as well as a maneuvering state for years, in fruitless, failed battles that only lead to killing, terrorizing and displacing more and more Syrians.
He also noted that the only thing that can cease the military operations, is imposing pressure from the Russians’ side, if they are convinced to do so.
In practice, the Caesar Act is similar to previous sanctions but more severe. If the Syrian Central bank is classified as an entity that supports terrorism or money laundering, this will lead to its paralysis and its incapability of dealing in euros and dollars. They will be restricted to dealing with only Russian, Chinese and North Korean currencies, a tough route that will lead to complete paralysis of the rest of the economic system.
Al-Qadi believes that Caesar Act will lead to a further tightening of the noose around the regime’s neck, which will prevent it from creating economic forefronts to circumvent these sanctions, stating that this law will be more complex, with tighter control over its enforcement to pressure the regime and its allies.
Circumventing the Law?
Over the past few years, the Syrian regime developed its tools and methods to counteract the impact of the sanctions, bringing them down to point zero, every time the international community imposed them against it.
By analyzing the Syrian regime’s behavior in dealing with the economic sanctions over the past few years, it is clear that it is working on two sides; the first is to understand these sanctions’ path to find illegal solutions to circumvent them, and the second is to try to direct these sanctions’ damages to the Syrian citizens instead, the ones living in the areas under the control of the regime, in exchange for minimizing their impact on its military and security institutions, which―at the time of writing this report―are still bombing Syrian cities and holding more than 100,000 civilians in notorious detention centers.
According to Dr. Karam Shaar, after sanctions were imposed on Iran in 2015, Iran was able to bypass these sanctions by using intermediate fuel oil tankers to discharge Iranian oil at the sea, and then sell it through intermediary ships, but these actions were revealed eventually, by satellite images. This will apply to Syria now, as the capability of the countries imposing sanctions, to monitor applying them, has become more sophisticated and can help them reveal any attempts to break such sanctions.
He also believes that the regime’s ability to evade sanctions is decreasing, day after day, especially as the profit margin from the Syrian market has become low for foreign companies, which now prefer to withdraw and not face these sanctions.
This has also been reflected upon retail shops, where many of the retailers in Syria have begun to close down, as they become trapped between citizens’ fraud accusations and the pressure from consumer protection agencies.
According to Shaar, the regime’s main concern is the lack of foreign exchange, which could lead to a decreasing the ability to import daily required commodities, resulting in the developing of a feeling of envy and instability among civilians. Furthermore, he noted that the war didn’t push the civilians, living in minority-inhabited cities, towards such a boiling point, given that military control there has already been achieved.