The Caesar Act, the tough new US sanctions law imposed on the Syrian regime and its backers, is deeply contested among Syrians, even among those who oppose Bashar al-Assad. Conversations with opponents of the regime indicate that the sharp drop in the rate of the Syrian Pound (SYP)—ahead of the publication of the first list of targeted entities on June 17—and the concurrent hike in prices of basic goods is the main reason for the wariness toward the Caesar Act. Yet even more concerning is the track record of US sanctions regimes in succeeding to unseat recalcitrant regimes or fundamentally alter their behavior.
Looking back at recent decades, when the West came to rely more heavily on economic sanctions to significantly alter a country’s behavior, unilateral and multilateral sanctions on authoritarian regimes have neither toppled nor ended their reliance on repression to remain in power. This pattern can be observed in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Venezuela, North Korea, Cuba, and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Given these past experiences, the prospect of regime change, which is the hope of Syrians in exile, those displaced, and many of those living under regime control, seems remote. On the other hand, the indirect economic impact of sanctions have been immediately felt at a time when Syrian society continues to deteriorate into utter destitution.
I lived through five years of siege imposed by the Syrian regime on the cities and towns of the Damascus countryside. We were denied water, electricity, and food. Within this area, almost everything became unavailable and prices multiplied more than tenfold. The situation was utterly unbearable. It became commonplace to see emaciated bodies scavenging garbage for food. Even if money was available, food and medicine were not, leading to an unbelievable rise in the prices of goods. For example, the price of sunflower oil rose by 300 percent and the price of sugar more than doubled, outpacing the collapse of the Syrian pound. We were reduced to eating a meal once a day or even two. Hunger is a grueling experience, making you feel weak and constantly fatigued.
As someone who has experienced not only a siege but hunger as well, I can never wish it upon another human being. It does not matter whether this person is a supporter of the regime or an opponent. The famine that will strike Syria, largely due to the country’s devastation, but exacerbated by Western sanctions, will not distinguish between the victim and the executioner, though the victim will be more vulnerable to starvation. The Syrians who have been displaced from their land and are living in tents that do not protect against the summer’s heat or the winter’s cold—a total of 1.1 million such people live in Idlib alone—are particularly vulnerable. Nor do the tents protect those who lost a breadwinner to barrel bombs, bullets, or torture dungeons.
During the siege, the dominant discourse among the besieged was the need to remain patient and endure hunger as it got worse. The widespread belief at the time was that “the regime will inevitably fall, it’s only a matter of time.” This discourse remains prevalent amongst the Syrian opposition, but it has limited resonance with many segments of society nowadays, particularly those who have experienced hunger before. Political promises and statements no longer instill hope in them.
The sanctions do not directly target the Syrian currency, but fear of the unknown ahead of the announcement of the first list of entities targeted by the Caesar Act led to a dramatic increase in the demand for the US dollar in Syria in May, which had a catastrophic impact on the population. Between mid-May and mid-June, the Syrian pound lost 67 percent of its value. “My salary is about 60,000 Syrian pounds ($27). That’s now enough for only four meals for my family of seven members,” says Abu Hassan from Homs, who works at the Petroleum Ministry. “The fear of my children starving forced me to sell a plot of land that I owned, cultivated, and tended for ten years. I consider myself lucky to have had something to sell, meanwhile there are people who can’t even afford a bread crumb and don’t have anything to sell. And even that plot of land got me enough money for only three months, after which I have no idea how I will manage to feed my children.”
The sanctions target oil production in regime-controlled areas (similar to the sanctions on Iran that have led to Syria’s crippling shortages of fuel, gasoline, and gas since 2018). These shortages have proven to be opportunities for enrichment among members of the regime. Jawad, a soldier in the fourth division of the regime forces in Daraa city, steals from the fuel allotted to vehicles and tanks and sells it on the black market. He considers that his main source of livelihood because his salary does not cover his consumption of alcohol and cigarettes. “It is true that I steal and sell gasoline, but others in the division kidnap and take ransom and sell drugs and cannabis to other soldiers. I have chosen the path that is less harmful to others,” he explains.
The son of an old elite family in Damascus recently boasted about how he has never had to stand in line for cooking gas, which is in very short supply during the winter. Ordinary citizens turn to cooking on wood while waiting for over two months for their turn to purchase a subsidized gas canister. Instead, he gets the canister from “an officer” in exchange for a “gift.” This is one example of many of how those targeted by the sanctions can end up benefiting from them, since they are able to utilize their access to limited resources to turn a profit.
The regime is unconcerned about Syrian lives and, thus, worsening economic misery is unlikely to shift its calculations. The sanctions do encumber the regime’s leadership and cronies, but they also see them as opportunities to turn a profit at the expense of Syria’s poor. Therefore, the sanctions are unlikely to affect the cohesiveness and loyalty of the regime’s core structures. Instead of contributing to the hardship of millions of Syrians through sanctions, the United States must find other means to exert pressure on the specific pillars that uphold the regime to compel Syria to begin a true process of political transition. Otherwise, Syria is headed for a grim future. Gradually, even the few Syrians inside the country who support the sanctions will become disillusioned by them, as they grow hungry while Assad and his cronies remain in power, sucking the population dry. In such a scenario, keeping the current sanctions regime in place, including the sanctions that have a sector-wide impact on the population—such as the energy-related sanctions—will merely be a form of collective punishment that US policymakers ought to reconsider.
Qussai Jukhadar is a Syrian researcher based in Turkey. Follow him on Twitter @Qussai_Jukhadar.
Elizabeth Tsurkov is a fellow at the Center for Global Policy, focusing on the Levant. Follow her on Twitter @elizrael.
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