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The Imperious Caesar Act Will Crush the Syrian People

This isn't the first time the U.S. has leveled sanctions against a war-torn economy and called it 'civilian protection.'
Mass Ramadan Iftar at the war-torn Aleppo

Broad and sweeping sanctions inevitably harm the entire population of a targeted country, and in many cases that is exactly what they are meant to do.

When they are joined to maximalist policy goals, they are guaranteed to fail according to the standards of their supporters. The ongoing failure of sanctions is then cited as a reason to expand them and make them even more obnoxious. A piece of sanctions legislation targeting Syria is a case in point. The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act has greatly expanded the scope and reach of U.S. sanctions on the Syrian economy, and the first sanctions authorized by the law come into force this week. That practically guarantees imposing further hardship and deprivation on a country that has already been ravaged by eight years of conflict. It is just the latest piece of evidence that the U.S. needs to renounce its use of broad sanctions.

In their recent analysis of the legislation, Basma Alloush and Alex Simon explain how the Caesar Act will likely stifle Syria’s economic recovery, interfere with humanitarian relief and reconstruction efforts, and drive away businesses that might be willing to invest in the country. They emphasize the legislation’s “vast scope” as a reason to fear that it will simply add to the burdens that the civilian population has had to bear:

Within that continuum, the Caesar Act’s novelty lies in its vast scope. Previous measures have targeted a mix of individual actors and selected sectors, and have applied almost exclusively to Syrian and American entities. By contrast, the Caesar Act promises to slap so-called “secondary sanctions” onto businesses of any nationality that are found transacting with sanctioned actors in multiple sectors of Syria’s economy — notably energy and construction. As such, the bill aims to deepen Damascus’ isolation by deterring investment by any businesses from Beirut to Dubai to Beijing.

Sanctions are not the primary cause of Syrians’ hardships, and the Syrian government bears significant responsibility for the wreckage of the economy. Even so, further strangling the Syrian economy now will succeed only in starving the country of investment and commerce for no real purpose. Sanctions will fuel inflation and make even basic necessities unaffordable for millions of people. The U.S. can choose to assist the people of Syria, or it can choose to grind them down even more. The Caesar Act is the latter. The people of Syria are being made to suffer more in the vain attempt to weaken the Syrian government.

The Caesar Act’s destructive effects won’t be limited just to Syria, but are already spilling over into Lebanon:

The ramifications of Caesar are rippling through Beirut, where traders retain lucrative ties to Syrian officials that are barely keeping Lebanese state revenues ticking over.
“This is a disaster for the [Lebanese] government, said one Lebanese banker. “They will sanction Lebanese traders and banks. Our currency will plunge as far as theirs. One of the few places we can trade is Damascus. If that’s shut down, we’re doomed.”

Like any other coercive intervention, sanctions have destabilizing, negative consequences for the targeted country and all of its neighbors.

The Syria example is a reminder that sanctions are easy to apply but remarkably difficult to remove later. It is politically advantageous for politicians to endorse sanctions bills because it allows them to claim that they are being “tough” on some despised foreign leader, and no one will hold them accountable for the destructive effects of sanctions in the years that follow. There is usually much more political risk in opposing sanctions or calling for their removal, because this is wrongly cast as “rewarding” another government’s abuses. It is also often the case that sanctions legislation includes conditions for sanctions relief that are so ambitious and far-fetched that they will never be met. Alloush and Simon comment on some of the unrealistic conditions contained in the Caesar Act:

As a result, the Caesar Act’s true force may lie less in its immediate impact and more in its long-term implications. The law’s five-year sunset clause means that these measures are likely to stick until 2025 — possibly longer. In principle, the president could suspend the sanctions sooner if Damascus and its allies fulfill a set of seven criteria. However, several requirements — including “releasing all political prisoners” and “taking verifiable steps to establish meaningful accountability” — are so unrealistic as to render this stipulation meaningless.

The U.S. tends to impose many overlapping and reinforcing sets of sanctions on the same governments, and that makes it even less likely that all sanctions on a government will ever be lifted. As a result, sanctions on another country become a permanent fixture of their economy, and the targeted government has no incentive to make any concessions on any issue. Writing at the Lawfare website, Edward Fishman makes an excellent observation about how sanctions pile up and then lead to effective policies of regime change:

The static nature of sanctions not only makes them toothless; it also produces harmful effects on U.S. policy. Because sanctions are rarely lifted, they tend to accumulate over time at a steady, if intermittent, pace. As sanctions snowball, so do their objectives, worsening the convoluted problem outlined above. The net result is that, almost by default, nearly every sanctions program eventually aims for regime change. (It’s hardly surprising that one of the only times America has ended a sanctions program in recent history—when President Obama did so with respect to Burma in 2016—came after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy won a majority of seats in Burma’s parliament.) With a tortuous web of sanctions and policy objectives, most adversary regimes rightly assess that the only way out of sanctions is to call it quits. But no government will commit political suicide to undo sanctions.

When the U.S. seeks major changes in regime behavior or the overthrow of the regime through sanctions, the policy is most likely to fail. But it will also necessarily harm the civilian population in the meantime. Fishman cuts to the heart of the matter:

Policymakers and experts need to disabuse themselves of shibboleths that sanctions are precisely targeted at government officials and spare civilian populations and accept that America’s most ambitious sanctions programs aim to cause systemic economic damage—which, by definition, is felt by most if not all members of society.

Sanctions advocates often cast themselves as supporters and allies of the people in the country whose economy they want to destroy. This has never been credible, and it is long past time that we stop tolerating these deceptions. If you seek to ruin another country’s economy, you seek the ruin of the people living there. Sanctions advocates should be held responsible for the results of the policies they promote.

We have seen this story unfold many times over the last three decades. First, the U.S. imposes sanctions to punish a government for its behavior. Then the government’s leadership and its cronies use the economic difficulties created by the sanctions to enrich themselves and buy loyalty by controlling access to limited goods. Legitimate commerce is strangled, smuggling flourishes, and the government and its cronies exploit that to their advantage as well. Meanwhile humanitarian organizations that try to help the people find themselves bogged down in paperwork and struggling to get the simplest items approved, and humanitarian relief ends up being delayed or blocked all together. Financial transactions with the outside world become all but impossible, and essential humanitarian goods can’t be brought into the country. Collective punishment strikes down the poor and infirm, and it leaves the well-connected and corrupt to prosper. The Caesar Act sanctions seem very likely to repeat the same pattern. Alloush and Simon add:

The impact will go far beyond deterring individual companies, trickling down to ordinary Syrians seeking to get on with their lives. For instance, the Caesar Act targets Syria’s construction sector, which has sparked concerns among aid organizations working to support small-scale infrastructural rehabilitation — from fixing up damaged water networks to helping rebuild bombed-out schools or apartments.

The U.S. increasingly relies on a coercive policy that does a terrible job of advancing American interests, but it excels at impoverishing and killing ordinary people in many countries around the world. Economic sanctions have been a favorite tool for politicians and policymakers to use against many governments in response to a range of undesirable activities, because it seems to offer a low-cost option that allows the U.S. to “do something.” The record clearly shows that they fail on their own terms, and they end up costing much more than their advocates will ever admit. It would be bad enough if this were simply a matter of repeating the same error over and over and never learning anything, but the consequences of sanctions have been devastating for millions and fatal for tens of thousands of people.

Hurting the weakest and most vulnerable people is what sanctions usually do. The broader the sanctions are, the more harm they do to innocent people. Instead of trying to “fix” or reform how the U.S. uses tools of economic warfare, our government should abandon the use of broad, sectoral sanctions entirely. Just as we have sought to limit and restrict the use of force to reduce the harm to civilians in warfare, we need to limit and restrict the use of economic coercion when it comes to sanctioning other governments. Rather than refining tools of collective punishment, the U.S. should stop trying to police the behavior of other states.



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