On June 17, 2020, the Trump Administration imposed new sanctions on the Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad. The sanctions are intended to prevent private and foreign investors from supporting reconstruction and revenue-producing efforts in the country, which has been ravaged by a civil war. The purpose of the sanctions is to create accountability for the Assad regime’s violence against the Syrian people through the use of diplomatic and coercive economic measures. The Caesar Act was sponsored by Senator James Risch (R-Id.) and signed into action by President Trump in December 2019.
The sanctions were the first implementation of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which was passed by Congress last year in response to thousands of photographs of torture in Syrian prisons that were taken by the pseudonymous photographer for whom the bill is named. The Caesar Act also indicates that the Department of the Treasury can impose special measures on the Bank of Syria if the Treasury determines the Bank to be a sufficient money laundering concern. The bill also imposes sanctions on people who knowingly provide goods or services to Syria that the President believes could be used to commit human rights violations, such as military aircraft and items on the U.S. Munitions List. The President is authorized to impose sanctions against people who have provided significant support or engage in a significant transaction with the Syrian government and against actors who are knowingly responsible for human rights violations against the Syrian people.
The new sanctions under the Caesar Act are coupled with preexisting sanctions against Syria that were established in Executive Order 13582 in August 2011. The Executive Order, signed by then-President Barack Obama during the Arab Spring, included restricting travel and isolating persons from the U.S. financial system who engage in or finance the obstruction, prevention, or disruption of a ceasefire or political solution to the conflict in Syria. Despite the sanctions, Assad was still able to commit human rights violations against Syrians.
The Treasury and State departments identified 39 individuals or entities that are eligible for these new restrictions under the guidelines provided by the Caesar Act. Included on this list are Assad himself and his wife Asma al-Assad. The European Union placed Asma al-Assad under sanctions in 2012, but this is the first time the U.S. has taken direct steps against Asma. The new sanctions extend to the Syrian president’s brother Maher al-Assad, head of the Fourth Division of the Syrian Arab Army. President Assad’s sister Bushra al-Assad and members of the Hamsho family, which has close government ties, are also subjugated to the new sanctions.
The sanctions provide exemptions for humanitarian aid groups and organizations dedicated to promoting democracy in Syria. These measures are intended to ensure that aid can be delivered to Syrians suffering from displacement and other effects of the war, as well as mitigate the economic consequences faced by the Syrian people.
Syria had already devalued its currency by 44 percent just hours before the sanctions took effect amid fears that the sanctions would worsen the country’s economic crisis. The Syrian government, in an effort to control the flow of currency and the exchange rate, has cracked down on hawala, or offices of exchange that are used by the majority of Syrians
The financial crisis in Lebanon, including a shortage of foreign currency and controls on withdrawals, is also affecting Syrians who did commercial transactions or saved their money in that country. Iran’s economy is also strained by U.S. sanctions. The entire region is suffering from additional economic pressure due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The new sanctions will likely affect the flow of foreign capital into Syria for post-war reconstruction, especially from Russia and Iran. Therefore, the sanctions from the Caesar Act also further limit the economic mobility of two other countries that the U.S. has already sanctioned.
Government Responses to the Sanctions
U.S. lawmakers applauded the sanctions as a much-needed step against the Assad regime. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) called the implementation of Caesar’s Act “a welcome but overdue step” in reprimanding the Syrian government’s actions in the country’s civil war.
In a statement on June 17, 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the sanctions “the beginning of what will be a sustained campaign of economic and political pressure to deny the Assad regime revenue and support it uses to wage war and commit mass atrocities against the Syrian people.” Pompeo also declared that the U.S. was undertaking these new measures in its pressure campaign “in full cooperation with other like-minded countries.”
The White House Press Secretary issued a statement of support for the Caesar Act on June 17 as well. It read, “Today’s designations send a clear message that no individual or business should enter into business with or otherwise enrich such a vile regime.
In response to the new sanctions, the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the country’s state-run news agency criticized “the level at which the officials of this [US] administration had descended.” The Syrian government called the sanctions a “violation of all international laws and customs.”