The Caesar Act: Examining the Effectiveness of U.S. Sanctions in Syria

Three months have passed since the Caesar act was passed with triumph in the halls of Capitol hill, yet everything seems to be at an odd standstill in Syria. Violence and famine continue to wrack the populace, killing hundreds every month. Black markets continue to thrive as the price of household goods skyrocket to hundreds of dollars. Security forces funded by the corrupt al-Assad regime continue to cast the shadow of death on the remains of cities that were once filled with aspiration and hope. Nothing much has changed in Syria, a country largely characterized by empty promises and lost opportunities in the past decade. Where did the United States go wrong? 

Syrian President Bashur Al-Assad, in power from 2000 to the present day | Courtesy of The National

In the year 2000, the direction of Syrian politics seemed to be upright and progressive. Bashur al-Assad, successor to the al-Assad family that ruled Syria for four decades, had just begun his campaign for President. Upon securing the seat with overwhelming support from loyalists and the military, he proposed an encouraging political agenda, including the modernization of the Syrian economy and fighting longstanding corruption in the government. Known as the Damascus Spring, Assad acted on these promises for a short time, releasing political prisoners, permitting independent journalism, and allowing for public political meetings. Syria soon became the poster child for democracy in the Middle East. But this status fell a long way in the years that followed. Leaders of the opposition were arrested and limits were placed on the freedom of the press. Economic liberalization benefitted the upper class and the elite to the highest degree. And in May 2007, a referendum widely regarded as a sham placed Assad back in charge for seven more years. In the protests that followed, Assad ultimately denounced the outcries as a terrorist conspiracy and in 2012 he mobilized Syrian security forces in a massive crackdown he deemed the “iron fist”. For the next eight years, the fist ended 400,000 Syrian lives and sparked a mass immigration crisis. Concerted efforts to stop the bloodshed from the US and allies fell to an eventual standstill as Russia started to support the Assad regime, bolstering its place in power. The United States was in desperate need of a new approach. 

Brandished as a countermeasure to years of oppression from the corrupt al-Assad-regime, the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection was the wonderchild of US foreign policy objectives in June. The name was a nod to the Syrian photographer who famously documented torture in Assad’s prisons, and represented a strongarm method to finally hold the regime accountable. As part of the National Defense Authorization Act, it would increase the ability of the U.S to sanction businesses, individuals, and government institutions for economic activities that support the Assad regime. Therefore it gave a specific provision targeting any parties that wished to re engage with the Syrian government and sustain its existence. Whereas sanctions had a limited effect prior to the conception of the act, US officials hoped that with the increased jurisdiction the act provides, the US could effectively pressure the Assad regime to submit by cutting off all of the routes for survival. 

Syrian civilians denounce new US sanctions in the capital of Damascus, many have turned to support the Assad regime | Courtesy of The Arab Weekly

However, in recent months since the implementation of the Caesar Act, the effects of the policy have diverged significantly with its original intentions. The prospects of regime change seem very remote, and as is the case with many US sanctions, the civilian body has suffered the most. Between May and June of this year, the Syrian pound lost two thirds of its value, leading many more into the rabbit hole of extreme poverty as the prices for food and medicine rose to astronomical values. This naturally led to a strengthened black market and further economic corrosion. And the core aim of the act, the supposed upheaval of the Assad regime, has yet to come. In fact, the elite seem to benefit from these sanctions, as their extensive access to limited resources allows them to turn a profit and sell what goods they have to each other. But what’s more, the Assad regime has used the sanctions as a scapegoat, blaming it for the predicament of the Syrian people and stirring up anti-American sentiment. 

All in all, the unintended consequences of the Caesar Act are steering it in the opposite direction of its original intent. By pointing exhaustive sanctions towards Syria, the US government seems to exacerbate economic misery, adding to the list of hardships Syrians already face. In the face of a suffering nation the US may need to carefully reconsider the efficacy of its economic policies, ensuring that the ends justify the means, punishing the regime rather than the populace.