Caesar Act: Shield Syria's suffering civilians from sanctions

Failing to bring the Assad regime to the table, the US should, at least, ensure aid continues to reach ordinary citizens

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You would be forgiven for thinking you had taken a time machine back to 2011 when watching videos of the protests in the southern Syrian province of Suweida over the past week. Demonstrators marching in their hundreds calling for the fall of the regime of Bashar Al Assad, and being assaulted by riot and plainclothes policemen attempting to stifle and intimidate them.

But it is 2020, and Mr Al Assad has all but won the war in Syria because of his allies in Russia, Iran, Lebanon and Iraq. Now, he faces a challenge that could still upend his rule, an economic armageddon that has left citizens hungry and impoverished, the currency in tatters, and which his forces cannot bully their way out of.

Suweida, a majority Druze province in the south-east of the country, has largely escaped the nine-year civil war unscathed, having maintained an uneasy relative neutrality in which they resisted sending their young men to fight Mr Al Assad's war. But they suffered attacks by ISIS extremists in the past, including in 2018 a brazen attack that killed over 200 civilians and shocked the province with its brutality.

The call for the regime's overthrow was paired with demands for an end to economic corruption and mismanagement that has led to great suffering in Syria in recent months. The country's economy has already contracted greatly as a result of the war and its destruction and the flight of capital, but that crisis has been exacerbated by three recent developments.

The first is the economic collapse in neighbouring Lebanon, where a banking system that was essentially a house of cards unravelled along with a currency crash that greatly limited access to dollars. Lebanon was always an important conduit for foreign currency into Syria, and many wealthy Syrians had placed their deposits there.

Second, the coronavirus pandemic has led to partial shutdowns of the economy (partial because, by the government’s acknowledgement, that was all citizens could afford) and worsened the conditions of ordinary Syrians.

Finally, a raft of US measures known as the Caesar sanctions, after a military photographer who escaped Syria with a cache of photographs documenting the systematic torture and mass murder of detainees, are due to come into effect this week. Meant to tighten the noose around the regime over its war crimes and force renewed UN-led talks, the measures have scuttled any attempts at reopening the country for business, reconstruction and even humanitarian ventures, despite having provisions excluding such aid from its framework.

All the while, Mr Al Assad has refused to take any real and concrete measures towards political reform that could pave the way for a rapprochement with the international community and the eventual influx of reconstruction funds. Buoyed by his apparent victory, he has characteristically refused to compromise, apparently willing to sacrifice the well-being of his people. He also turned on the elites who bolstered his rule, including his cousin Rami Makhlouf, who allegedly owes billions of Syrian pounds in taxes to the state.

In real economic terms, Syrians are suffering. The currency has gone from about 47 pounds to the dollar in 2011 to 3,000 in June, making their savings worthless. Unemployment is sky high, and as of 2019, an estimated two thirds of Syrians were living in extreme poverty, making what amounts to less than $1.90 a day. They are much worse off now, as are the soldiers that rely on government pay cheques to support themselves and their families.

On the ground, the situation is far more visceral and real. Syrians speak of having to go without staples or meat, having to reduce their meals and hide what groceries they have from onlookers on the street, barely able to afford basic necessities and expenses. The pandemic will exacerbate these needs.

It is difficult to see a way out of the crisis besides band aids. Humanitarian organisations ought to work with the US administration to ensure the Caesar Act does not increase the suffering of ordinary citizens buckling under the weight of nine years of war, even as it attempts to compel the regime to the negotiating table. Aid in the form of medical supplies and food as well as provisions for basic infrastructure such as water pumps and electricity must continue, even in the face of the pandemic.

But none of this will fix the rotten core at the heart of Syria – the Assad regime. For years, it has employed savage brutality to get its way.

The country has burned, and Mr Al Assad teeters again, and this time the bombs will not save him. Yet somehow, it is ordinary Syrians who will be made to suffer once again.

Kareem Shaheen is a former Middle East correspondent based in Canada