Designed to provide U.S. sanctions against Bashar al-Assad’s regime and anyone who provides financial or material support to the Assad regime, the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act is soon expected to pass in Congress.[i] In a nutshell, the bill targets current and aspiring Assad regime business partners across oil and gas, merchant, lender, service provider, and contractor services. Politically, beyond its intended economic impact, the bill treats the Assad regime as a criminal entity and isolates and sanctions any entity or person engaging with the regime until certain demands are met. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, recently stated, “The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act ensures that Assad will be treated like the pariah he is.”[ii] In the spirit of recent U.S. Treasury Department sanctions imposed against Syria’s foreign backers,[iii] the bill will continue to target “foreign military contractors, mercenaries, or paramilitary forces who knowingly operate in a military capacity inside Syria for or on behalf of the Government of Syria, the Government of the Russian Federation, or the Government of Iran.”[iv]
Despite its noble purpose and objectives, the legislation warrants further inquiry in several respects. In referencing “sanctions with respect to foreign persons that engage in certain transaction,” the bill sanctions any foreign person who “knowingly provides significant financial, material, or technological support to, or knowingly engages in a significant transaction with the Government of Syria (including any entity owned or controlled by the government of Syria) or a senior political figure of the Government of Syria.”[v] With this in mind, given the history of military and economic coordination between the Kurds and the Assad regime, it remains unclear whether any foreign persons or entities who engage with the Kurds will also become subject to sanctions imposed by the bill. Even more perplexing are the questions that may arise in connection with the recent Syrian government-Kurdish military coordination to secure a buffer against Turkish forces in the northeastern part of the country. It remains equally unclear whether the Kurds will also become subject to such sanctions.[vi] There are also concerns that the sanctions may hinder Gulf states’ ability to finance reconstruction efforts[vii] in Syria and, by extension, also hinder the ongoing efforts to counter the influence of Iran in the country.[viii] There are also concerns that the proposed sanctions are likely to punish ordinary Syrians and further cripple and deteriorate humanitarian aid work in the country.
The bill represents a turning point in seeking accountability from both the Assad regime and its direct and indirect supporters. In evaluating the utility of the bill, however, one must also consider whether the Assad regime will be sensible to the aforementioned economic, political, social, and legal forms of coercion. The Assad regime does not operate in isolation. He has built a rather supporting coalition of both domestic (i.e. Alawite Muslim minority, religious minorities, Syrian Armed Forces, large businesses and public sectors, etc.) and international backers (i.e. Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, etc.)[ix] who pledge loyalty to him. Such loyalty is largely dependent on receiving patronage resources from the Assad regime. For instance, as some authors have suggested, the support among the Alawites and other religious minorities has been steady since the onset of the conflict in 2011 and it is likely to grow stronger out of a fear of a Sunni Islamist regime in the event that Bashar is ousted.[x] Furthermore, the regime’s foreign backers not only share strategic interests in the country but also remain unwavering allies of the Assad family, determined to also circumvent EU and U.S. sanctions imposed for their roles in the recent Syrian conflict.[xi]
Perhaps the intended objectives of the bill are not necessarily the ones being pursued. Namely, the primary goal of the sanctions could be both to pander and appeal to domestic audiences in Syria to seek and influence regime change. Under this particular scenario, the costs imposed by the bill are likely to be evaluated against the benefits that the regime might accrue by eliminating domestic and international political threats that are crucial to his survival. For instance, similar to the case of Saddam Hussein, who realized that the goals of a number of sanctions imposed against his rule were regime change and not necessarily disarmament,[xii] the likelihood of compliance with any of the stipulated sanction demands on the part of the Assad regime are minimal.
With the exception of Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib, where violent clashes between the regime troops and militant groups continue, the Assad regime now controls a large fraction of Syria. [xiii] While the issue of stabilization and the extent to which the Assad regime will be able to successfully govern and control territories in post-conflict Syria remains debatable, the regime has been able to successfully eliminate political threats and regain territories, and some would even argue that he has been able to achieve that rather effortlessly, specifically, “[The regime is] strong enough to take back control because there is no fight that they have to fight to get it. It’s basically being handed to them because the Kurdish forces would rather them then the Turks.” [xiv]
Since the Syrian conflict, the Assad regime has been ignoring, or downplaying, any threat of action by the international community as credible. Arguably, some of the boldness on the part of the regime stems from past failed policies[xv] that have allowed a degree of forbearance on its part to view the credibility of international actors as low and the repercussions of failing to comply as minimal. The proposed bill and the sanctions imply tangible consequences and costs to the Assad regime. More importantly, they should signal a positive shift across the international community’s efforts to rally public condemnation in lending credibility to victims’ claims in the face of the Assad regime’s atrocities. At least in the near term, the sanctions against the Bashar regime are likely to bring a sense of justice to his many victims while possibly also rattling the foundations of the regime relationship with his current and prospective allies, partners, or benefactors.
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