In Lebanon, there is very little debate today on the streets beyond the exchange rate and the value of the local currency which is spiraling downward, making June 17, the date the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act goes into effect, more ominous.
The Caesar Act that will place new sanctions on the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria is certainly not a novel invention as it joins tens of similar sanctions, yet it clearly identifies his regime as a criminal one and punishes anyone who collaborates with it.
Lebanese seem to have missed this fact as they essentially believe that the implementation of the Caesar Act is merely a first step toward the Trump Administration’s adoption of a new set of sanctions that directly targets Lebanon. The chances of these sanctions affecting Lebanon are not really farfetched, as Lebanon for many years has been fully engulfed by Iran and Hezbollah, which uses Lebanon’s economy to keep the Assad regime afloat.
In this respect, the question begs how will the Caesar Act influence Lebanon, or what remains of it?
The Lebanese and Syrian economies have always been intertwined in one way or another, but since the start of the Syrian revolution, the Assad regime and its allies – mainly Hezbollah – have used Lebanon as a center to avoid sanctions, and more importantly to gain access to hard currency and key provisions. The effect of this process has always been curbed by the fact that the international community, as well as the Arab Gulf states, kept subsidizing Lebanon’s economy in the hopes that its leaders would sooner than later regain their sanity and oppose the abduction of their country – something that has not yet transpired, forcing Lebanon into total economic isolation.
As a first step, at least theoretically, the Caesar Act will restrict the vast cross-border smuggling operations of petroleum products, medication and other supplies, many of which are subsidized by Lebanon’s almost non-existent dollar reserves. With or without the Caesar Act, the Hassan Diab government in Lebanon will do nothing to crack down on these smuggling operations as they will not dare to cut the lifeline of the Assad regime and Hezbollah – the main parties responsible for the smuggling.
The Caesar Act, as it was designed, aims to make any association with the Syrian regime as toxic as possible and thus deter any foreign investment from entering Syria. Specifically, it is designed also to deter the reconstruction of Syria without the presence of a political settlement supported by the United States that the Russians would also be able to uphold, while simultaneously limiting and ultimately removing Iran’s influence over Syria, which seems highly unlikely at this stage.
For the majority of Lebanese who do not fall under the categories listed above, the Caesar Act is a not a punitive tool but rather one that protects their country and its economy from the political class and Hezbollah that rob from them and share it with their counterpart in Syria. The Caesar Act and many of the other sanctions that will be passed on these corrupt figures will perhaps give the Lebanese a fighting chance and help them protect their rapidly depleting dollar reserve which they will need to escape famine.
At one time Lebanese merchants, who do not necessarily support the Assad regime nor its allies, were free to trade with the regime and were paid in Syrian lira, which they then brought to Lebanon to exchange for dollars. Under the act, if merchants or any Lebanese entity wish to make transactions with any of their Syrian counterparts, this process should not benefit the Syrian regime or help it in carrying out its criminal acts.
Yet if the normal Lebanese citizen abides by the provisions of the Caesar Act, there is no indication that the political elite and their various business interests would do so. The Lebanese political elite, some of which are openly staunch opponents of Assad, own or share in a wide array of business ventures that have actively involved in illicit and legitimate trade with the Syrian regime, making them millions of dollars. After June 17, this will no longer be legal.
If these powerful sectarian chiefs continue profiting from Assad and his criminal organization, they will not only be accessories in war crimes, but they will be inviting direct sanctions on themselves and all Lebanese.
With their country occupied by forces of corruption and tyranny, the Lebanese are better off with the international community in their corner and for tools, such as the Caesar Act, to be implemented that will help them liberate their country from the domestic and foreign forces they once called friends.
Makram Rabah is a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, Department of History.