Sanctions as a Viable Action in a Complicated Environment

When the US Congress returns from its summer recess, the House of Representatives is slated to consider the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2016. The legislation—intended to expand the existing Syrian sanctions regime—is named after “Caesar,” the pseudonym of a military defector who smuggled some 53,000 photographs out of Syria in 2013 documenting the deaths of 6,786 detainees in Syrian prisons. The proposed legislation is co-sponsored by the committee chair and ranking member together with a bipartisan group of 16 representatives from across the country and across the ideological spectrum. While an impressive start, how much difference would the legislation actually make if enacted?

For several decades already, Syria has been subject to a wide range of US sanctions, dating back to its 1979 designation as a sponsor of terrorism. Well before 2011, the US took measures to prohibit financial transactions with the Syrian government and blocked property in the United States belonging to the Syrian government and its senior leaders. Foreign assistance and military exports were likewise prohibited. When Bashar al-Assad responded to the 2011 Arab Spring uprising with insensate brutality, President Barack Obama expanded the sanctions regime. Backed up by the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 and previous statutes, a new series of Executive Orders specifically targeted persons responsible for serious human rights abuses in Syria, freezing their assets and banning their entry to the United States. Presidential directives further authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to sanction companies providing digital technologies that assisted the Assad regime in its efforts to track down and harm Syrian citizens and also to pursue foreign individuals or entities trying to help Syrian parties evade US sanctions.

The newly proposed legislation builds on this robust sanctions regime. It reiterates—and embeds in law—regulations already in place. It also takes aim at the Government of Syria’s civilian-targeting tactics, and defines specific human rights violations that trigger the sanctions. The most ground breaking aspect of the proposed legislation is that it would give US officials an explicit mandate to impose sanctions beyond the normal reach of US law, extending them to “foreign persons” who are knowingly providing significant financial, material, or technological support to the Government of Syria.

The bill’s sharpest tip is aimed squarely at the Syrian government’s international enablers, and that’s a significant expansion. Russia and Iran have been propping up the regime with air power, weaponry, and funding for various armed groups—including Afghan and Iraqi militias, the Syrian National Defense paramilitary, and the Lebanese Hezbollah, all financed by Iran. Without this support, Assad’s regime and the military campaign would have collapsed, yet thus far Iran and Russia have not felt real consequences for their ongoing assistance. As things stand, Iran and Russia appear willing to support the regime indefinitely, even in its flagrant disregard for the basic principles of international humanitarian law. The proposed legislation aims to alter that calculation by targeting foreign entities, a category that includes banks and companies as well as individuals.

After three years of being told by the Obama administration to not pursue sanctions because it would interfere diplomatic efforts, US lawmakers are rightfully fed up. Throughout the conflict the Assad regime has relentlessly shelled civilian neighborhoods, cruelly targeting schools and hospitals in its bombing campaigns—offenses specifically named in the proposed legislation. In recent weeks there has been a constant barrage of incendiary weapons indiscriminately pouring a napalm-like substance over the city of Aleppo, burning human victims and setting property aflame. The regime has systematically rounded up and tortured its political opponents, and just last week UN inspectors released the results of a lengthy investigation, providing conclusive evidence that the Syrian government used outlawed chemical weapons on a large scale during its 2013 assault on Damascus.

Through all of this, Russia has remained a steadfast ally of Syria. It has shielded the regime from pressures to participate in peace negotiations and used its Security Council veto to block imposition of international sanctions and thwart referral of the manifestly evident war crimes to the International Criminal Court for investigation and prosecution.

Diplomacy has been slow and ineffectual: the last round of talks early this year seemed mainly an opportunity for Assad prepare for the summer assault. In recent days, US and Russian diplomats have announced renewed efforts to achieve a political solution for Syria, but it is unclear whether the regime and its allies will negotiate a genuine ceasefire or adhere to any agreement. That is where this proposed legislation comes in. While the Obama Administration blocked Russia’s state-owned arms exporter Rosoboronexport from further business with the United States in 2015, it has generally been reluctant to apply Syria sanctions to Russia or Iran. The proposed legislation would anchor the sanctions in law and holds potential to harm Russian and Iranian interests, particularly by punishing banks and financial institutions that are doing business with the Assad regime. Whether this would be sufficient to induce Syria’s allies to alter their stance is hard to say, but it is a card that needs to be played. Russia and Iran have had few incentives to pressure their client, and without bringing more pressure to bear on them, it is unlikely the United States will achieve results at the negotiating table.

In the meantime, some 6.6 million Syrian civilians are living in limbo, within the country’s national borders but away from their homes and amidst untold dangers and privations. The plight of the internally displaced and concerns about the continuing exodus of those who attempt to flee abroad have caused many to wonder about the feasibility of a safe zone within the Syrian borders. These humanitarian concerns, too, are reflected in the legislation, which requires the administration to return to Congress with an assessment of the viability of establishing a safe zone. The issue is highly contentious because, among other considerations, this action would likely require the presence of ground troops.

It is unlikely that any of these issues will be resolved before the next US president assumes office, but that only makes the legislation more relevant. With the additional menace of Islamic State militants and the situation on the ground changing rapidly, US leaders should continuously examine options. Yet the complexity of the conflict should not divert attention from the very grave war crimes and extensive human rights atrocities for which the Assad government must ultimately be held accountable.

Susan Waltz is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of Michigan and a specialist in international human rights. Hossam Abouzahr is the editor of SyriaSource.

Image: Photo: Men carry girls that survived double airstrikes on the rebel held Bab al-Nairab neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, August 27, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail