New US sanctions on Syria mean no leniency for business with Assad

David Adesnik

Published: Updated:

The toughest sanctions yet on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are set to take effect in just two weeks. No firm that wants to stay off the US Treasury’s blacklist should plan on doing business with the regime, especially in the construction, petroleum, and aviation sectors.

US President Donald Trump signed the sanctions into law last December, but they are just now taking effect after a six-month waiting period. The sanctions bear the codename of a Syrian military photographer who fled the country with 55,000 images of the corpses left behind by Assad’s interrogators. The FBI Digital Evidence Laboratory examined the images to ensure Caesar had not manipulated them.

Sanctions analysts describe the restrictions in the Caesar law as “secondary” sanctions because they apply to non-US citizens and companies, whereas “primary” sanctions apply to American individuals and entities. While this distinction is not ironclad, the bottom line for foreign investors is that secondary sanctions make them far more vulnerable than they were previously.

In addition, Congress made the sanctions mandatory rather than giving the president discretion when applying them. The mandatory nature of the sanctions puts violators in jeopardy regardless of who is in the White House. Under President Trump, the US Treasury has only intensified its enforcement of sanctions on Syria, so there is no reason to expect leniency for those who do business with Assad.

Firms should not expect the coronavirus epidemic to soften the application of US sanctions on the Syrian regime. Despite Iran’s emergence as the regional epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration has rebuffed calls by Democratic senators and a coalition of senior European statesmen to ease sanctions on Tehran.

Easing sanctions would put hard currency in the hands of Iran’s clerical regime, which it could use just as easily to fund terrorist organizations like Hamas or Lebanese Hezbollah, rather than investing in public health.

A similar logic applies to Syria. There is deep concern in the US for the people of Syria, but there is negligible support for sanctions relief since no one expects a regime that bombs hospitals and uses chemical weapons to spend any new income on fighting COVID-19.

There are ways to help the people of Iran and Syria without lifting sanctions, however. In the case of Iran, the administration has emphasized that Tehran can purchase Western medical equipment through a special channel for humanitarian trade the US set up in tandem with Swiss partners last year.

Syria has little need for a special trade channel, since it can barely afford any imports. Rather, the UN’s multi-billion-dollar aid program is the relevant channel for assistance, whether to fight COVID-19 or for other purposes; the US already contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to that effort each year.

If Tehran has any hope for sanctions relief, it is for Democrats to retake the White House in elections this coming November. The Democratic candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, has said he would resume US participation in the nuclear deal with Iran from which Trump withdrew in 2018; the terms of the deal include extensive sanctions relief for Tehran.

Assad may be an Iranian client, but he should not expect American pressure to diminish if Biden revives the nuclear deal. The Caesar law passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. Procedural delays held up its passage for three years, yet a single isolationist senator, Rand Paul, put up most of the roadblocks. The battle in Washington is over now, and the Caesar law won.

The Assad regime has avoided collapse so far thanks to Russian and Iranian military intervention, but the Caesar law reflects Washington’s determination to hold accountable those who seek to help Assad rebuild the country he reduced to rubble.


David Adesnik is a senior fellow and director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on twitter @Adesnik.

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