A number of experts and researchers in the Syrian affairs underlined that despite the military victory scored by the Syrian regime and its allies in the Syrian conflict, the issues and facts that led to the revolution of the Syrian people in 2011 continue to exist and that the Caesar Act constitutes a turning point in the Syrian conflict that would increase the pressure on the regime and its supporters and prevent the conversion of the military victory into political results.

This came during a webinar organized by the Emirates Policy Center (EPC) on Wednesday, 9 July 2020, entitled “Conflict in Syria in Light of the Caesar Act and Implications of the Coronavirus Crisis”. Dr. Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, Dr. Bassma Kodmani, member of the negotiating team for the UN-led peace talks on Syria and member of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, and Zaki Mehchy, senior consulting fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Program, Chatham House, and researcher at the London School of Economics, took part in the webinar which was moderated by Dr. Ebtesam al-Ketbi, EPC President.

In her opening remarks, Dr. al-Ketbi said that although nine years have passed since the start of the war in Syria, prospects for ending the conflict and reaching a political solution are still uncertain: at the field level, areas in north and east Syria are still outside the control of the Syrian regime; and at the political level, United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2254 (2015), which provides for reaching a permanent political settlement in Syria based on a new constitution and holding free and fair elections, has not yet been implemented. Even the work of the Constitutional Committee, which comprises the regime, the opposition and the civil society, has been disrupted after the second round, although the third round is expected to be held in August 2020, according to a statement given by the UN envoy for Syria Geir Pederse. 

Dr. al-Ketbi: The Caesar Act will deprive the Syrian President of converting his military victory into political results and establishing his stay in office. The Act will also deprive his two allies, Russia and Iran, of gaining the benefits of their intervention in Syria

Dr. al-Ketbi added that many analysts have viewed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, or the Caesar Act for short, which started to be implemented by the US administration beginning of June 2020, as a “game changer”, considering that it will deprive the Syrian President of converting the military victory into political results to establish his stay in office indefinitely. The Act will also deprive his two allies, Russia and Iran, of gaining the benefits of their intervention in Syria.

Hussein Ibish indicated that there are many motives that drove the US to enact the Caesar Act, mainly to send a message to the allies of the Syrian regime that they will not achieve their goals of intervening in the Syrian conflict. While the US understands the Russian interests in Syria, by implementing the Caesar Act, the US is driving Moscow to dissociate its interests from the Syrian regime per se, and to dissociate them from Iran as well, considering that the Act is part of the US policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran.

Ibish explained that the Caesar Act includes incremental sanctions and could, in the short run, lead to increasing reliance by the Syrian regime on its allies to counter the Act’s economic consequences. Howevever, Washington hopes that in the long run, the Act could lead to accumulating pressure on Assad and his allies in a way that would force them to reach a political solution to the Syrian crisis. Consequently, Ibish underlined the necessity of the incorporation of the Act into an integrated and comprehensive strategy to put pressure on Iran and Hezbollah, and of the continuation of that strategy for years to come.

Ibish: It is important that the Caesar Act be incorporated into an integrated and comprehensive strategy that aims to put pressure on Iran and Hezbollah, and that the strategy continue to be implemented for years to come

Zaki Mehchy said that from the political perspective, the Caesar Act constitutes one of the tools of the US foreign policy to influence the Syrian crisis and impose US conditions with regard to the future of the solution in Syria. The Act also enhances the US negotiating cards in the face of Russia and Iran.

At the economic level, the Syrian economic expert indicated that the Caesar act represents an additional factor of the deterioration of the Syrian economy which has already collapsed as a result of nine years of war. Syrian losses since the start of the war are estimated at nearly 500 billion US dollars, which is nine times the size of the Syrian gross domestic product (GDP) in 2009. According to UN statistics, nearly 80 percent of the Syrian people live under the poverty line.

He added that the Act would have side effects: first, it would reinforce the existing division in Syria as it exempts the autonomous regions in east Syria from the sanctions. Second, the Act will drive the Syrian regime to rely on illicit economic networks to bypass the sanctions. This would lead to enhancing the role of warlords and corrupt businessmen. Third, the Act would have an impact on the Syrian people itself, which would require the international community to search for mechanisms to support the Syrian people without legitimizing the regime.

Zaki Mehchy indicated that the Act would undermine the regime’s capability to benefit from Lebanon as its financial and economic lungs. While the sanctions brought by the Act would extend to all the Lebanese sides that deal economically with the regime, mainly Hezbollah, Lebanon itself is experiencing a severe financial and economic crisis. The banking crisis in Lebanon is affecting the Syrian regime and people as well; Lebanese banks used to be the favourite destination of Syrians to keep their dollar savings. Syrians are no longer capable of withdrawing such savings.

Mehchy: The Caesar Act would reinforce the existing division in Syria as it exempts the autonomous regions in east Syria from the sanctions

Furthermore, the Syrian economy has been affected by the decline in the remittances of Syrians abroad due to the economic recession resulting from the coronavirus crisis, given that more than 60 percent of the families living in the regime-controlled areas depend for their livelihood on foreign remittances. According to statistics, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the remittances amounted to five million dollars per day, receding to only two million dollars per day after the pandemic.

While Zaki Mehchy underlined that the Caesar Act will economically weaken the regime, the regime’s allies would be keen to preserve their interests and control over Syrian resources such as oil, gas, wheat and ports. Finally, he underlined that it is extremely important that the Caesar Act be incorporated into a comprehensive and clear strategy to dismantle the authoritarian foundations of the Assad regime.

In her turn, Bassma Kodmani said that Syria has reached the threshold of chaos and collapse due to the deteriorating economic and living conditions, the lack of services and the collapse of the Syrian lira. Such miserable conditions have driven people in regime-controlled areas to take to the streets in peaceful demonstrations demanding change, as was the case recently in Daraa and As-Suwayda. She added that the failure by the Security Council to extend the mechanism of cross-border aid for another year due to the Russian-Chinese veto would lead to further deterioration of the humanitarian conditions in Syria and could lead to famine in Syria.

Kodmani: Failure by the Security Council to extend the mechanism of cross-border aid for another year due to the Russian-Chinese veto would lead to further deterioration of the humanitarian conditions in Syria

  Kodmani explained that while it is true that the Caesar Act constitutes a challenge for all Syrians, it, nevertheless, constitutes the only barrier to the regime’s return to former conditions. The Act also provides a sign to the regime and its allies that it is important to engage in a serious political process leading to a gradual change in Syria. The Syrian activist underlined that in light of the regime’s rejection of change, the pressure by the international community on the regime and its supporters would be the only way of reaching a safe and prosperous future for Syria.

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