Caesar Act: a bittersweet victory for Syrians

Measures that punish the entire economy, rather than individual leaders, can destroy lives, livelihoods and hopes for wider prosperity

FILE - In this July 24, 2019 file photo, a woman carries bread on her head while she crosses a street in the Syrian capital, Damascus. In Syria nowadays, there is an impending fear that all doors are closing. After nearly a decade of war, the country is crumbling under the weight of years-long western sanctions, government corruption and infighting, a pandemic and an economic downslide made worse by the financial crisis in Lebanon, Syria's main link with the outside world. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)
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Today, the Caesar Act, a bill imposing sanctions on the Syrian regime and those who co-operate with it, has come into effect. Approved by the US Congress last December, the legislation is named after the Syrian photographer who bravely smuggled 55,000 images documenting torture in regime prisons.

This is the first time Damascus is sanctioned by the US on the basis of human rights violations rather than threats to American national security. Syria has also occupied a consistent place on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1979, longer than any other country. Five decades of Al Assad family rule over Syria have done little to improve its international standing.

For the Syrians who have long suffered under the weight of the Assad regime, the Caesar Act is a bittersweet victory. As much as a third of the population has been pushed into exile by the country’s ongoing conflict, with many unable to come back for fear of persecution. But for those who remain in Syria, the prospect of additional sanctions is unnerving. Measures that punish the entire economy, rather than individual leaders, can destroy lives, livelihoods and hopes for wider prosperity.

Economic sanctions on rogue states are a diplomatic tool of last resort. They are intended to push governments stubborn in their insistence on abusing their own people – and others elsewhere – into compliance with international law and norms. After nine years of bloodshed, the Syrian regime still shows no sign of backing down. And now, its population is on the brink of starvation, according to the World Food Programme.

Pro-regime groups in Syria and Lebanon claim that economic collapse was not brought on by a mismanagement or corruption, but rather that it is the fruit of US sanctions. In truth, the situation had been rapidly deteriorating for years. Since November 2019, a banking crisis in Lebanon – the country through which Syria accesses the global economy – has taken a toll on the currencies of both nations, and limited Damascus's access to dollars. This has stifled Syria's ability to import basic necessities.

For decades, Lebanese activists have decried the widespread economic mismanagement and corruption that have wreaked havoc on their country’s finances. In Syria, where more than 85 per cent of the population lives in poverty, the situation is even worse. The regime has been able to survive 50 years of sanctions only by circumventing the international system with the help of allies in Lebanon and overt support from heavily-sanctioned Iran.

For the Syrians who have long suffered under the weight of the Assad regime, the Caesar Act is a bittersweet victory

The Caesar Act is meant to help bring about an end to this paradigm. But on its own, the legislation will not be enough. The international community must find ways to ensure that those who suffer the most in Syria do not see their lives destroyed irreparably. The country’s refugees and internally displaced people must be cared for. And as authorities start to clamp down on protesters in Suwaida, and the rights of Lebanese demonstrators are increasingly jeopardised, efforts must be made to protect and empower those risking their lives to exert pressure on their governments from within.