EPC | 17 Aug 2020
Many analysts have viewed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, or the Caesar Act for short, which the US administration began to implement in June 2020, as a "game changer" in the Syrian chessboard, considering that it would prevent the Syrian President from converting the military victory into political results to perpetuate his stay in power indefinitely. It would also deprive his allies Russia and Iran of reaping the fruit of their intervention in Syria. The Emirates Policy Center (EPC) had held a webinar on 8 July 2020, with the participation of a group of experts in Syrian affairs, with the aim of discussing the Act and its potential repercussions internally and externally. Below are the most important remarks that featured in their interventions in this regard.
There are several motives for the issuance by the US of the Caesar Act, mainly sending a message to the allies of the Syrian regime that they will not achieve their goals from interfering in the Syrian conflict. While the US understands the Russian interests in Syria, by imposing the Caesar Act, it drives Moscow to dissociate its interests from the Syrian regime itself, and to dissociate them also from Iran, given that the Act constitutes a part of the Trump administration's policy of maximum pressure on Iran.
The Caesar Act includes incremental stages of sanctions, and may lead in the short term to increased reliance by the Syrian regime on its allies to counter the economic burdens of the Act. However, Washington hopes that in the long term, the Act may lead to an accumulation of pressure on Assad and his allies, thus forcing them to reach a political solution of the Syrian crisis. In this context, it is also important that the Act be part of an integrated and comprehensive strategy aimed at pressuring Iran and Hezbollah, and that this strategy continue for years.
Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
From the political perspective, the Caesar Act constitutes one of the US foreign policy tools to influence the Syrian crisis and impose its conditions regarding the future of the solution in Syria. The Act also strengthens the US negotiating cards against Russia and Iran. In economic terms, the Act represents an additional factor in the deterioration of the already collapsed Syrian economy due to nine years of war. The Syrian losses since the start of the war are estimated at nearly 500 billion dollars, i.e. nine times the Syrian GDP in 2009. According to United Nations statistics, nearly 80 percent of the Syrian people live below the poverty line.
The Caesar Act will have important side effects. First, it will reinforce the existing division in Syria, because it exempts the Autonomous Administration regions in eastern Syria from the sanctions. Secondly, the Act will drive the Syrian regime to rely on illicit economic networks in order to circumvent the sanctions, which means strengthening the role of warlords and corrupt businessmen. Thirdly, the Act will have an impact on the Syrians themselves. This requires that the international community search for mechanisms to support the Syrian people without legitimising the regime. The Act is likely to undermine the regime's ability to benefit from Lebanon as a lung through which it can breathe financially and economically. While the Act will punish all the Lebanese actors that will deal economically with the regime, especially Hezbollah, Lebanon itself is experiencing a severe financial and economic crisis. The banking crisis in Lebanon affects the Syrian regime and the Syrian people as well, considering that Lebanese banks were the favourite destination for Syrians to keep their dollar savings. Syrians are no longer able to withdraw their money in Lebanese banks. Besides, the Syrian economy has also been affected by the decline in remittances from Syrians residing abroad due to the economic recession caused by the coronavirus epidemic crisis, given that more than 60 percent of families residing in regime-controlled areas depend for their livelihoods on foreign remittances. According to statistics, while remittances before the coronavirus pandemic amounted to five million dollars per day, they have declined to two million dollars per day only after the pandemic.
While the Caesar Act will weaken the Syrian regime economically, the regime's allies will be keen to preserve their interests and control over the Syrian resources, namely oil, gas, wheat, and ports. Therefore, the Caesar Act should be part of a comprehensive and clear strategy to dismantle the authoritarian foundations of the Assad regime.
Zaki Mehchy, economic expert and senior fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program, Chatham House.
Even before the Caesar Act was passed, Syria had reached the point of chaos and collapse due to the deterioration of the economic and living conditions, the absence of basic services, and the collapse of the Syrian pound (lira). These miserable conditions have driven people in the areas controlled by the regime to stage peaceful demonstrations calling for change, as was the case recently in Daraa and As-Suwayda. There is no doubt that the failure of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to extend the mechanism of cross-border aid for a year due to the Russian and Chinese veto will worsen the humanitarian situation and may lead to famine in Syria.
It is true that with its entry into force, the Caesar Act will constitute a challenge for all Syrians. However, the Act serves as the only barrier that prevents the regime from returning to the previous situation. The Act represents a clear warning sign to Bashar al-Assad's regime and its allies regarding the need to engage in a serious political process that leads to gradual change in Syria. In light of the regime's rejection of change, the pressure of the international community on the regime and its supporters is the only way currently available to reach a safe and prosperous future for Syria.
Bassma Kodmani, a France-based academic; founder and Executive Director of the Arab Reform Initiative.