Explainer: The Caesar Sanctions

The Caesar sanctions are the latest in a series of sanctions which are aimed at the country's leadership but which affect the population.

Eliot Engels speaks to a number of men in police uniforms as they stand in front of a number of US flags
Former Democratic Representative Eliot Engels introduced the Syria Caesar Act. Credit: Twitter | @RepEliotEngel.

What are the Syrian sanctions?

The latest sanctions on Syria are a new episode in a long-running series. The United States began imposing sanctions on Syria in 1979 in reaction to Syrian support for Iran. The Syrian government was able to circumvent the deleterious effects of these sanctions by seeking out new trade partners. This resulted in the Syrian-Soviet friendship treaty of 1980, a pact establishing a connection between the two countries and further infuriating the US empire.

Since the outbreak of the war in Syria in 2011, more sanctions have been applied to Syria. Sanctions imposed by the US and EU states are, they insist, only targeted against the Syrian government and not personal transactions. 

However, the reality is that Syria has suffered from the effects of secondary sanctions since they were first imposed. Privately owned institutions, e.g. banks and corporations, have, in response, sanctioned the country in order to avoid trouble with their own governments. Effectively, Syrians have been cut off from trade with Western countries or businesses for the last decade. Additionally, there has been an extra cost for importing goods, following the hyperinflation of the Syrian pound. 

The Caesar sanctions imposed in 2020 are the worst yet. The Caesar sanctions are named after a Syrian defector, who testified and produced photos of alleged abuse in Syrian prisons. Following a hearing in the US senate, a new round of sanctions were introduced to punish Syria for said abuse.  These sanctions explicitly target the rebuilding of Syria following a decade of war. The act openly states its “strategy [is] to deter foreign persons from entering into contracts related to reconstruction”.

The stated purpose of the sanctions is to force Syria to hold “free and fair elections”, a process with the presumptive aim of President Assad leaving power. Such a result is unlikely in the upcoming Syrian elections given the current popularity of the war time president.

However, US envoy of Syria James Jeffrey has said that the motivation for the sanctions is because Syria “is not Afghanistan nor Vietnam; it is not a quagmire. My job is to make it a quagmire for the Russians”. These policies will starve Syria, in every sense, in a cynical geopolitical move forged as an attack upon Syria’s ally Russia.

The effects of the law

The Caesar Act targets any entity that works with the Syrian government, as led by President Bashar al-Assad. In turn, countries, governments, companies, entities and international lenders work to subjugate the Syrian state. The Act primarily targets the current supporters of the Syrian government, i.e. Russia. The sanctions also target countries which are not so obvious. Saudi Arabia was in contact with the Syrian government regarding construction until the sanctions. 

The law introduces specific paragraphs related to oil, energy, electricity, aviation, military, and vital sectors related to reconstruction and means of recovery, although the law itself – as most of the previous unilateral coercive measures – excludes food, medicine and basic needs related to the lives of citizens. Syrian doctors, for example, have complained about being unable to use Zoom as a consequence of the law. Due to the limitations on the delivery of goods to Syria, quite a number of goods have been marked dual use goods. Thus, something that has a civilian and military use e.g. toothpaste is forbidden. 

These restrictions have hindered the delivery of medicine and medical equipment to Syria. Humanitarian organisations must apply for licenses from all sanctioning countries in order to deliver dual use goods. This procedure can be costly and burdensome for smaller organisations, which results in even fewer deliveries of necessary goods One tragic consequence has been a shortfall of Covid tests.

Finally – and against all conventions of international law – under the Caesar sanctions the US reserves the right to estimate if the Central Bank of Syria is laundering money and will impose further sanctions accordingly. Without the lifting of these sanctions rebuilding Syria will remain impossible.