Economic Sanctions Middle East Politics & Diplomacy Syria
MENASource May 24, 2021

The US sanctions regimen against the Assad regime is working. Here’s how.

By Peter Metzger

The refrain from foreign policy cynics and progressives on the ongoing conflict in Syria, which is now in its eleventh year, generally sounds the same: “the conflict in Syria is over,” “there is no US interest there any longer,” “Bashar al-Assad and his patrons have won the war.” 

The complexity of the conflict, Assad’s sordid history alongside that of his patrons Russia and Iran, and the bevy of state and non-state actors vying for political and military terrain make simple maxims hard to come by for Syria in 2021. 

Similarly, the subtle nuance and careful study required to recognize advances toward resolution and accountability for myriad war crimes make it easy for observers to shrug their shoulders and to quickly—and conveniently—forget Assad’s barbarism since 2011.  Conflict of this magnitude is exhausting. Accountability and political resolution are even harder. It seems not everyone has the stomach for the latter. 

One maxim, though, holds true: the United States’ targeted and tailored sanctions regimen against Assad and other malign actors in Syria is accomplishing its stated objectives. These designations not only give the US and its allies leverage toward a political resolution to the conflict, but so too do said designations hold together a de facto nationwide ceasefire throughout Syria.

When President Donald Trump announced a military drawdown in Syria in 2019 following the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), some expressed surprise and, curiously, blissful oblivion to his campaign promises to do just that. Whether the Joe Biden administration plans to follow through with that drawdown remains to be seen. President Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal decision, though, signals limited interest in protracted military engagements. With the fall of ISIS accomplished, Biden will likely confront near-term decisions on a continued military footprint in Syria—a military mission that was and is about ISIS, not Assad.

The problem emerges when conflating a military drawdown with the suggestion that the US has no interests in Syria or, worse yet, suggesting that the US is without resources to affect change—particularly political resolution, save military action. Such a notion naively overlooks military power as the final foreign policy resource and similarly disregards the devastatingly sharp power of the US financial system and exclusion from it under a targeted, tailored sanctions program.

Enter the combination of sanctions designation authorities that the US has employed to date to limit Assad’s military advance; to deny his benefactors the spoils of a war with innumerable humanitarian atrocities; to hold accountable those responsible for said atrocities; and to compel political resolution through economic isolation of the Assad regime.

The premise remains simple and transparent. Just as with other adversarial, malign actors, the US administers and enforces sanctions based on US foreign policy and national security goals against state and non-state actors alike. By excluding those targeted from the US financial system, sanctions designations create trade, financial, commercial, and currency havoc for those countries, entities, and their partners.

The stated objectives of targeting the murderous Assad regime with US sanctions are also clear: to compel political resolution to the conflict through diplomatic and economic isolation of Assad toward a new Syrian constitution and free and fair democratic elections for the Syrian people. Additionally, they seek to hold Assad and his supporters accountable for the unthinkable war crimes committed throughout the conflict.

To this end, the US has employed a series of sanctions authorities, including the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) and its related authorities, Executive Order (EO) 13894 from October 14, 2019, and the 2019 Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act (Caesar Act) against the Assad regime and its patrons.

The reach of CAATSA allows the US to designate countries or individuals providing arms transfers to Syria—e.g. Iran and Russia—self-evident of continued, non-kinetic US national security levers and interests in Syria. While the passage of CAATSA became marred with suggestions of legislative overreach into the executive realm, CAATSA and its related authorities have provided the US opportunities to designate foreign entities in support of the Assad regime, including Rosoboroneksport, a state-owned Russian weapons trading company, its subsidiary Russian Financial Corporation Bank, and Russia’s National Security Advisor Nikolai Patrushev.

In October 2019, after months of direct messaging from Ankara regarding Turkey’s intent to move into northeast Syria to clear purported terror elements from its border, Tukey did just that. In its maligned, and quickly curtailed, Operation Peace Spring, Turkey moved significant military forces into northern Syria, triggering potential massive humanitarian displacement and further destabilization.   

In the subsequent days, the Trump administration quickly issued EO 13894. Its greatest immediate impact—and the most media-covered provision—was the authority to sanction current or former senior Turkish government officials threatening the peace and stability of Syria. Turkey’s Defense Minister, Hulusi Akar, was one such official. Akar’s designation—a complex action given Turkey’s status as an ally with whom the US shares security interests in Syria—was prelude to the very effective US-brokered ceasefire in Ankara in the days that followed. Simply put: the sanctions helped provide a non-military solution to a Turkish military advance in Syria.

An oft-overlooked provision of EO 13894, though, remains perhaps its most powerful: Section 2 of the order provides sanctions designation authority against those responsible for obstruction, disruption, or prevention of a ceasefire in northern Syria. 

Subsequent to EO 13894’s role in halting Operation Peace Spring, EO 13894 Section 2 has provided clear, non-kinetic tools for the long reach of the US financial system to help enforce ceasefires in Syria. Each renewal of the Idlib ceasefire further evinces 13894’s role in preserving the peace. Even the cynics cannot suggest that stymying Iranian and Russian military advances via sanctions-enforced ceasefires are not in the interest of the US or our allies.

Finally, the Caesar Act goes right to the core of atrocity accountability for Assad and his regime. The enormous bipartisan support for Caesar has provided the US both specific and general deterrence to international actors supporting the barbarity of the Assad regime. The Caesar Act accomplishes two clear objectives: accountability for the regime’s atrocities and economic isolation of Assad to compel his participation in political resolution to the conflict.

By the end of the Trump administration, the US had sanctioned 114 individuals and entities under the Caesar Act. In doing so, the US issued very specific and significant penalties to Assad’s patrons, including his inner circle, while establishing a very specific deterrent to individuals or entities mulling such support.

More importantly, whether those sanctioned under the Caesar Act’s authority will ever face criminal consequences is irrelevant in review of its ability to help compel political resolution and hold accountable Assad’s enablers. The focus of Caesar has always been to preclude Assad’s furtherance of conflict and accountability for his enablers, not domestic or international civil or criminal liability for those targeted under the Act’s authority.

Some well-intentioned Syria watchers and, separately, Assad backers, suggest that the Caesar Act’s enforcement harms the people of Syria. This argument fails on two counts: the designations targets under this authority are carefully tailored to those providing illicit financial support to bolster Assad and, to suggest that the designations, which help bolster the political voice of the oppressed Syrian people against Assad, instead harms Syrians relies on a woefully circular rationale. Simply put, it is Assad who has perpetrated barbarity against his people—the Caesar Act is one such mechanism to end the tyranny. 

Were those perpetuating the more-harm-than-good Caesar Act fallacy truly focused on the humanitarian plight of the long-suffering Syrian people, they might point to Assad and Russia’s efforts to block humanitarian access renewal at the United Nations. Or they would look at the regime’s efforts to complicate other international aid and assistance organizations’ access to Syria.

To posit, though, that any sanctions designation against adversarial actors around the world had not a single unintended trickle-down consequence would be irresponsible. Nevertheless, Caesar’s tailored and targeted approach seeks to swiftly curtail support on a macro level to the ultimate cause of Syrian’s plight: the Assad regime. Non-kinetic solutions to geopolitical strife will require risk-reward evaluation in perpetuity. The Caesar Act analysis should continue to tip in favor of targeting the twenty-first century’s most villainous despot and political resolution to the conflict he begat.    

With that in mind, the US maintains an interest in Syria beyond the defeat of ISIS and can flex the might of the most powerful economy in the world in lieu of military action toward a de facto ceasefire—often with even greater efficacy. Additionally, the US has every interest in political resolution to the Syrian conflict, in ensuring a free and fair election to the people of Syria, and in curtailing adversaries’ advancement in Syria to the detriment of the US and our allies. Perhaps, most importantly, the US maintains an interest in ensuring accountability for the Assad regime and its enablers for the atrocious deaths of over five hundred thousand Syrians since the inception of the conflict in 2011. 

Political resolution and accountability take work. Sanctions authorities and enforcement are the best levers available to further US national security interests.

Peter Metzger is a former Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and Deputy Senior Director for Middle Eastern and North African Affairs on the National Security Council at the White House in the Donald Trump administration.  

Image: A military police member stands past election campaign posters depicting Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, ahead of the May 26 presidential election, in Damascus, Syria May 19, 2021. Picture taken May 19, 2021. REUTERS/Firas Makdesi