As the Syrian war enters its 8th year, the Assad regime, backed by Russia and Iran, has regained control of the vital areas of Syria. The opposition has been confined to limited regions in the North while the Kurds have established control over significant parts of the East. While military activities have not completely halted, their frequency and intensity have noticeably decreased. For the short term at least, the remainder of Assad in power is becoming a reality, and even Western governments have started to accept this. This acceptance has shifted the discussion towards more economic aspects, namely reconstruction efforts, the survival of the regime, and the situation in the areas under its control. These efforts have become intertwined with the sanctions imposed by the US and EU against Assad and loyalists. As the debate over reconstruction and consequently the role of Assad heats up, this paper will go through the two proposed acts in US Congress dealing with reconstruction, EU sanctions, and the different approaches that Western powers can resort to. This will help determine whether the political concessions that might be negotiated outweigh the humanitarian impact of the sanctions policy.
Caesar Syria Civil Protection Act
Following former US President Obama’s failure to act upon the “red line” he set regarding the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict, calls for accountability of war crimes and severe human rights violations were issued by various Syrian and international organizations and policy-makers. Named after the Syrian military photographer who defected and released more than 53,000 pictures documenting torture and abuses by regime forces, the 2016 bipartisan “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Bill” imposes sanctions against anyone doing business with or financing the Assad regime, ensures civilians are not harmed by the process, calls for a political solution to the conflict, and sets the necessary legal groundwork for future prosecutions of war crime perpetrators in Syria. The bill has been passed three times by the House of Representatives in 2016, 2018, and 2019 but never made it past the Senate. More than four months after its latest referral to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in January 2019, the Committee advanced the Act with a 20-2 vote on May 22. The next step is calling a final vote in the Senate, and if passed, the Act is sent to President Trump for his signature.
A detailed overview of the bill indicates that the following are included in the sanctions: individuals, no matter what nationality and even if not affiliated with a government, providing any kind of economic or military support to the Assad regime such as “financial aid, energy sector, Central Bank of Syria transactions, government related construction projects, doing business with transportation and telecommunications owned by the government, money laundering activities, intelligence and security financing, conventional and non-conventional weapons support, and aircraft or aircraft parts sale”. This extends to those committing or facilitating human rights violations of Syrian civilians.
The US President is given power to suspend sanctions if evidence of a conclusion to the conflict is present or if a political settlement is reached. It also allows the President to provide assistance if it contributes to a comprehensive recovery strategy.
No Assistance for Assad Act
The bill, introduced in the end of 2017, prohibits funding reconstruction projects in areas under the control of the Assad regime and its allies. This ban would only be lifted after civilians are no longer attacked and progress is seen in human rights, abidance by international obligations, halting missile development, and beginning refugee repatriation. Similar to the Caesar bill, it was also passed by the House but stalled in the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
Even before these two proposed acts, the US has adopted a sanctions policy against Assad. Since 1979, Syria is on the “state sponsor of terrorism” list of the US Department of State which limits trade of products that can be used for both civilian and military purposes. Since 2004, based on the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act passed by US Congress and signed by former President Bush, the export of US goods other than medicine and food has been prohibited. Since 2011, an executive order signed by former President Obama banned trade in services and Syrian oil. This goes along with restrictions against Syrian banks and sanctions against individuals and entities linked to the Assad regime.
US and EU on the Same Page… For How Long?
In January 2019, the EU imposed sanctions on 11 wealthy businessmen and 5 companies for providing material support to the Assad regime. The sanctions include an EU travel ban and assets freeze. Key names are Samer Foz, Anas Talas, and Mazin al-Tarazi. This was not a new development as they join a growing list of sanctioned targets reaching 270 persons and 72 entities. Even though those sanctioned are involved in a wide range of industries, their involvement in luxury real estate development on expropriated land was the main trigger. One project they are linked to is the flagship project of Marota City, commonly known as Basateen al-Razi in the suburbs of Damascus. The circle of funding is wholesome as the ties of the businessmen to the regime grant them access to major projects and in return they help finance its rule. This move by the EU can be considered as a warning sign to businesses, local and international, vying to be involved in the reconstruction process.
This latest wave of sanctions has been preceded by limits or bans on Syrian oil, products that can be used militarily, luxury goods, and building of power plants, and restrictive measure against banks. Unlike the US, the EU has not imposed a complete ban on commercial trade which offers more leeway.
The European position however is not as united as it may seem. Contrary to the efforts of France, Germany, and the UK to keep Assad isolated, some Southern and Eastern European countries governed by right-wing populist parties are looking at the issue from the lens of the refugee crisis. They believe that a quick recognition of Assad and funding reconstruction efforts will speed up the return of Syrian refugees. For example, Italy has been very vocal behind closed doors against the imposition of new sanctions, its Foreign Minster declared in January 2019 that they are considering reopening the embassy in Syria, and a secret meeting was held between Italian security officials and Ali Mamlouk, a high ranking security official within the Assad regime who is also sanctioned by the EU. This goes along with the visit of Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister and Head of the Polish Foreign Intelligence Agency to Damascus in 2018, marking the highest level official meeting since 2011. Also in 2018, the Czech Foreign Minster traveled to Damascus to secure the release of two humanitarian workers, one of whom is German. If this trend continues, then any member state of the EU can veto the annual renewal of sanctions and open the door towards European investment in reconstruction. This might be unlikely if one member state adopts the positions as it runs the risk of being isolated within the union, but if a group emerges in support of re-engaging with Assad then all options are on the table.
Feeling the pressure of further losing internal unity at such a sensitive moment in its history, the EU has engaged with Russia over negotiations of convincing Assad to be “more inclusive, if not democratic” in return for freeing up some funds for humanitarian assistance and “post-stabilization support”. Other conditions include the release of thousands of detained Syrians, amnesty, and UN monitoring of welfare of returning refugees. It does not however extend to complete reconstruction efforts unless a political process is adopted but provides some leeway for the EU to maintain coherence among its members.
Who Will Foot the Bill?
Since 2011, the war in Syria has led to hundreds of thousands of casualties, displacement of nearly half the population, economic collapse, devaluation of currency, rise in extreme poverty from around 12% to 60%, and destruction of a third of housing and two-thirds of medical and educational facilities… These indicators reflect some of the realities on the ground, and the lower estimates of reconstruction costs point to at least $250 billion with some reaching $350 billion. Assad previously stated that allies will be rewarded with reconstruction deals and have priority over governments who supported the opposition. However, these allies, mainly Iran and Russia, due to financial constraints, are incapable of leading the huge rebuilding process which is why Moscow has looked towards the West for financing. Even China, which pledged $23 billion in loans and aid to Arab states in July 2018 at the Beijing Summit as part of the Belt and Road plan, cannot cover the colossal budget needed. At a UNSC meeting in July 2018, Deputy Russian Ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy called upon international partners to get involved in the Syrian reconstruction efforts. Another more recent signal was in the 15 point plan issued after the summit between Lebanese President Aoun and Russian President Putin last March. One of the points relating to refugee returns clearly called for the involvement of the international community in the reconstruction process. This reflects the struggle between Putin and Assad over the implementation of some degree of reforms and decentralization of power.
Until this moment, the West has refused to contribute financially unless a political solution is reached. This reflects the continuation of Western attempts to guarantee interests in post-war Syria, if not militarily then by financial means. This does not negate the fact that there is a tacit Western admittance of Assad’s participation in any political process so the current negotiations over freeing reconstruction funds are not about removing Assad but rather obtaining some form of concessions.
Where Does Lebanon Fit in All of This?
Lebanon is impacted by these developments in two key aspects: refugee returns and reconstruction investment. In terms of refugee returns, Lebanon has been pushing through its President and Foreign Minister for the return of Syrian refugees and relies on the Russian initiative in this regard. The same applies to Jordan which is also hosting a large number of refugees; however, the stance of the West in providing assistance to Assad shows no signs of impending change.
If the West remains absent from reconstruction, then the refugee returns process will no doubt be hampered. Aside from well-founded security fears of retribution from Assad’s forces, the remaining infrastructure barely supports the needs of current residents and cannot sustain mass returns. This halting of reconstruction and persistence of poor living and working conditions in Assad’s Syria might even push the most vulnerable sections of the population to seek work elsewhere, mainly neighboring countries with an already large number of refugees, or even returning to the streets.
When coupled with the possibility of the US passing the two previously mentioned Acts, then Lebanese aims of getting involved in reconstruction projects will also be stopped as the negative impact of retaliating sanctions outweighs the benefits of involvement. This is because of the expanded nature of the Acts which do not only target the Syrian government but also third parties and states involved in the reconstruction efforts. For instance, Lebanon has been expanding the port in its Northern city of Tripoli to accommodate the sizeable demand for construction material for Syrian reconstruction. A former Finance Minister even stated that this is an “opportunity that Lebanon needs to take very seriously”. Lebanese firms were also heavily present at the 2018 Damascus-held International Trade Exhibition for Rebuilding Syria. This comes at a time of Foreign Minister Bassil’s push for Lebanese involvement in the face of diplomatic threats from the US of sanctioning Lebanese firms who are involved in the financing process.
Beyond Human Rights
While the bills are largely lobbied for and marketed as human rights oriented ones with aims of justice for the occurrences of the Syrian conflict, their purpose extends well beyond that into the political realm. If approved by the Senate and signed by the US President, the bills signify that, unless a political settlement is reached, future reconstruction plans in Syria will be constrained, if not even targeted by the US. Coupled with the inability of Russia, Iran, and China to provide the needed funds, Washington aims to use this leverage to further its interests in Syria as well as over major powers in the region, allies and foes alike. For instance, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have shown willingness to being involved in the reconstruction process. To amplify the effect of the sanctions and make sure that alternative investors are not propped up, the US pressured several Gulf States in early 2019 to halt the push for normalization of relations with Assad led by the UAE. China, poised to invest in the reconstruction phase, will also have second thoughts if the transactions are not done in Euros or US Dollars or if Chinese companies are at risk of sanctions. The same applies to large Russian companies as well. Such leverage can be exercised by the US President depending on the progress of negotiations as the bills also allows for case-by-case exemptions. Iranian companies on the other hand are already heavily sanctioned so the bills will not impact them. On the contrary, they could even increase their focus and influence in Syria amid an absence from other economic powerhouses. This does remain linked to their economic capabilities as the Iranian economy struggles under US sanctions as well.
The sanctions policy, manifested in both the Caesar and No Assistance for Assad Acts, cannot be isolated from the US demands to curb Iranian influence in Syria as stated by former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in January 2018. The relation between the Trump administration’s sanctions on Syria and Iran could be greatly intertwined as the US seeks to further pressure Iran’s finances by sanctioning its companies involved in Syrian reconstruction. The aim is to couple this with political diplomatic pressure to eventually force Iran out of Syria or limit its influence. This increased focus on Iran further highlights the US’ change in stance on the Syrian conflict with the Trump Administration: eliminate ISIS, force Iran out, and adopt a political transition which does not call for Assad to step down.
The Case Against Sanctions
Others believe that such moves are counterproductive as they tie the hands of negotiators and hurt the Syrian people more than the Assad regime which is likely able to withstand the pressure, especially with the support of Tehran and Moscow. For instance, there are ongoing talks between Iran, Iraq, and Syria to increase energy cooperation. The Syrian government also reacted to the latest EU sanctions by signing 9 new deals with Iran dealing with several economic issues such as gas shortage. Furthermore, while Syria’s public sector is unable to lead the reconstruction process on a country-wide scale, the absence of Western funds for reconstruction increases the reliance of Assad on his circle of elites to fund mega-residential projects that are inaccessible to those displaced, encourage gentrification, further the regime’s political aims, redraw the religious demographic of vital areas, and empower and enrich a small section of the Syrian population at the expense of the rest.
A key observation from the new luxury real estate plans being pushed for by the Assad regime is their exclusive targeting of areas where mass protests took place. This is seen as a deliberate attempt to prevent the return of millions of refugees and displaced. It was even reported in 2018 that leaked statements from a closed meeting with Jamil Hassan, head of Air Force intelligence, indicate the Syrian government’s preference of “10 million compliant citizens to the return of all refugees”. This echoes a public speech made by Assad during which he stated that “We lost the best of our youth, infrastructure, but we did win a more healthy and harmonious society”. Along with the previously mentioned Marota City, similar projects are planned for Jobar, al-Qabun, Aleppo, and Homs.
Previous experience has shown that sanctions tend to punish what remains of the population more than the regime in power. Their effect is indiscriminate and disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable of the population. Not to mention that they rarely lead to regime change unless followed up by military action. Economic sanctions were backed up by US invasions in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. In the case of Syria, and with any kind of military action highly unlikely, sanctions run the risk of being merely punitive. This does not negate the fact that sanctions did bring Iran to the negotiating table on its nuclear program, but whether this will push Assad to give meaningful concessions that can impact his continuity in rule is debatable, especially after surviving and regaining control of most areas following 8 years of a brutal war.
In spite of US and EU sanctions providing exemptions for humanitarian purposes and excluding civilians, experts and organizations active on the ground believe that these “smart sanctions” are actually impeding aid. One example is dual-use products which include a wide range of needed material such as agricultural fertilizer, drilling tools, pipes, construction equipment, and generators… The amount of legal work needed to qualify for exemptions is costly and time-consuming, and as a result, companies and banks are keeping their distance as they do not want to risk Western sanctions.
This has left a growing impact on the population. For instance, government-controlled areas have witnessed miles-long waits for cars to fill up on gasoline amid a severe shortage. This is coupled with 83% of Syrians living under the poverty line and struggling to make ends meet, damaged or destroyed basic infrastructure, leveled areas of previous battles, and highly strained social fabric. These conditions have also been politicized by the Assad regime and have been linked to a “conspiracy against Syria for standing up to the West”. In addition, and as an added indication of the limited effect widespread sanctions have on those in power, while oil and gas shortages affected most of the population, the people close to the Assad regime did not appear to have been impacted. On the other hand, it also highlights the role that the regime itself is playing in extending the suffering of the people.
What Options are on the Table for the West?
Depending on how long Western countries remain united and how far they are willing to abstain from providing funds, there are several courses of action available for the US and EU. One approach could be withholding funds and increasing pressure on Syrians living under Assad with the hopes that it brews enough discontent and protests which force Assad to compromise on the negotiating table; however, it could also lead to an even more heavy handed security grip over humanitarianly dire areas. Another approach could be an increased involvement in reconstruction but only through bypassing Assad and his circle to ensure transparency and weaken his hold on the economic aspects of post-conflict Syria. Any funds granted should be targeted, inclusive, and effective such as ensuring transparency, setting criteria for the disposal of funds, applying vetting processes, being directly involved in implementation, and including local grassroots organizations. Whether the second approach of working around Assad is realistic is heavily contested as Assad has set up the necessary economic and legal structure to channel all reconstruction and humanitarian funds through its approved partners. For instance, the regime has cultivated loyal business elites who are directly connected through social and familial ties and whose access to wealth is dependent on these ties. This is coupled with business elites who are politically dependent on the regime along with the silent isolation of elites who left the country. A third approach could be maintaining tough sanctions on individuals involved in war crimes and are in the inner circle of the Assad regime while lifting sanctions on trade and limiting financing to local stabilization projects to alleviate the dire situation of the population. This would avoid bankrolling Assad’s reconstruction plans and limits the humanitarian damage; however, it would also provide little incentive for Assad to compromise as socioeconomic discontent is kept at manageable levels. This directly depends on whether the West wants to use the Syrian population as hostages and a negotiating tool.
Even the experience of UN-funded projects has not been very encouraging in terms of independence and scope. The UN has signed contracts with NGOs run by the regime’s inner circle. Aid workers are forced to maintain good relations with the ruling elite to be able to pursue any aspect of their work as the bureaucracy and corruption are insurmountable without some “assistance” from above. Even small-scale reconstruction projects being implemented by international bodies such as the UNDP for stabilization purposes and humanitarian assistance to the population have been criticized. These projects, largely in areas with UN-brokered settlements that resulted in population transfer, are not taking into account the rights of the forcibly displaced residents. Such failure is exacerbated as it falls within Assad’s policy of demographic change and developing a loyalist support base in vital areas. This is also magnified by the planned cancellation of the Amman position of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs responsible for aid delivery to non-Assad controlled areas. This change is reportedly caused by budgetary concerns and changing realities on the ground in Syria. This would further consolidate Assad’s power over the aid process, its conditions, and areas of delivery as all aid workers in the capital are vetted and approved by the regime. As a result, the UN is stuck between either alienating regime elites to the extent of having their aid programs cancelled or accepting the use of international aid as a political tool by Assad.
Regardless of whether Assad wants Western assistance in reconstruction or not, the limited resources of his internal circle and external backers are nowhere near enough the huge price tag estimated. The shift in the discussion towards reconstruction effectively indicates a subtle acceptance by the West of Assad’s remainder in power. The current struggle is over the degree of concessions that could be leveraged through economic means. Assad, as having personally stated on several occasions, aims to reward his support base and external backers. This translated into billions of dollars’ worth of construction, real estate, and gas and oil contracts for Russia, Iran, and China. It must be noted however that the degree of applicability and following through on these contracts remains to be seen amid the absence of financial means for Assad, Russia, and Iran. This is why Assad may be looking towards Gulf States and regional reintegration. The latter would also bolster his legitimacy as he signals to the international community that the situation has normalized following years of war.
On one hand, the complete disengagement of the West from the reconstruction process raises the risk of unchecked government influence over any implemented project and allows Assad to shape post-conflict Syria in a manner that guarantees his, and his circle of elites, position in power. It also aggravates an already dire socioeconomic situation. On the other hand, the last card the West has to play in Syria is funding reconstruction. This however will not be enough to force Assad to accept a political transition. Even smaller reforms such as administrative decentralization, margin of operations for civil society, and release of political detainees have had doubt cast upon them by diplomats who have dealt with Assad. Thus, the meaningfulness of the reforms which might be agreed upon are at the core of the sanctions policy and depend on the circumstances at hand. Funding reconstruction, without advancements in regards to the political process or proper mechanisms to insulate funding from Assad’s authority and participation, runs the risk of consolidating the regime’s power over the country and undermines the possibility of addressing the reasons that drove Syrians to the streets in 2011.
On the long-term, alleviating sanctions could be just as harmful to the Syrian population as maintaining them. However, on the short term, a humanitarian dilemma casts its shadow over current Western policies. Whether the West is capable of navigating through such a complex situation to at least push for some form of gradual advancement towards proper governance and stability while not punitively punishing ordinary Syrians is a fine line to walk.References
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 Supra note 60
 Supra note 61
 Supra note 35
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 Supra note 57
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