In 2003, the red-hot source was “Curveball;” in 2020, its “Caesar.” The U.S. might soon discover if the second time is, in fact, farce. On 20 December 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2020 which incorporated many of the provisions of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019 (Caesar Act). The NDAA includes provisions for additional sanctions against leaders and enablers of the Bashar Al-Assad regime of Syria.
The sanctions are named after “Caesar,” allegedly a Syrian police photographer who defected with over 50,000 photos of what were claimed to be 11,000 victims of torture at the Tishreen and Military 601 hospitals in Damascus.
The photos were the basis for the Caesar Report that claimed to detail "the systematic killing of more than 11,000 detainees by the Syrian government in one region during the Syrian Civil War over a two and half year period from March 2011 to August 2013." The Caesar Report was announced on 20 January 2014, two days before the start of UN-sponsored negotiations which quickly broke down. The report was incorporated into the ongoing campaign against the Assad regime and, eventually, the Caesar Act.
But problems surfaced once neutral observers looked at those photos. (The Caesar Report was commissioned by the ruling family of Qatar, sworn enemies of the Assads of Syria. The report was prepared by the Carter Ruck law firm, which previously represented Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, also an enemy of the Assads.) Human Rights Watch examined the photos and determined that almost half are “dead Syrian soldiers and victims of car bombs and other violence,” not civilians victim of torture. The remainder appeared to have died in a conflict but the circumstances are unclear, so any claim of widespread torture of civilians is a stretch goal, to say the least.
Well, OK, there were some administrative glitches, it’s the middle of a war after all, but this Caesar guy can probably explain everything, right?
Well, that’s another problem. No one knows who he is. Just as with Curveball, whose evidence was used to justify attacking Iraq in 2003, the U.S. is relying on evidence from a mystery man. (Curveball later admitted his evidence was almost all lies.)
We were told Caesar’s identity must be kept secret to protect his family, even though they have been secreted out of Syria. If Caesar was a government photographer the Syrian security services likely know who he is, but it’s also possible he’s not a photographer and was picked to conceal the true source of the photos, or he himself was involved in atrocities and used the photos as a Get Out of Jail Free card. Whoever he is, his handlers may be concerned he wouldn’t do well even in front of a friendly interviewer.
We’ll eventually know Caesar’s identity, but in the meantime his sponsors won this skirmish with the imposition of new sanctions on Syria.
And impressive sanctions they are.
The Act provides for sanctions against the Central Bank of Syria if it is involved in money laundering. Also targeted is the Government of Syria and any entity it owns or controls; senior Syrian political figures and regime connected businessmen; providers of oil and natural gas, and aircraft or spare aircraft parts; operators of aircraft used for military purposes; providers of construction or engineering services, to stop reconstruction efforts; and foreign military contractors working on behalf of the governments of Syria, Russia, or Iran.
To deepen Damascus’ isolation, the Act also authorizes sanctions on non-U.S. persons who engage certain transactions with the Government of Syria or other sanctioned Syrian persons, so persons with no U.S. connection can be subject to secondary sanctions for activity outside U.S. jurisdiction. (If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you just read about China's Hong Kong National Security Law which “applies to anyone, anywhere in the world.”)
In June, the U.S. government made 39 “designations” of entities “actively supporting the corrupt reconstruction efforts of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad,” and “obstructing, disrupting, or preventing a ceasefire or a political solution to the Syrian conflict.” The sanctions start at the top with Mr. and Mrs. Assad, numerous members of their families, regime-connected businessmen, and selected military units.
The sanctions couldn’t have come at a worse time for the region.
Aside from the COVID-19 dislocation in the region, Lebanon’s economy is in free fall and its banks, which may hold up to $45 billion in Syrian assets, may be soon be deemed untouchable by the international system.
If Syria’s economy contracts even more, increasing its already dire 80% poverty rate, we’ll likely see more Syrians heading to Lebanon, which is already hosting almost 900,000 registered refugees, putting additional stress on Lebanon’s economy and infrastructure.
Jordan is hosting over 650,000 Syrian refugees. The economy is starting to recover from the COVID-19 lockdown, but the kingdom, home to more than 2 million Palestinian refugees, and will face an internal political crisis if Israel annexes territory in the West Bank which may kill the two-state solution.
The threat of sanctions against Lebanese and Jordanian businesses working with Syrian enterprises may slow the economic recovery as businesses stop trading, thus reducing tax revenues, just when the states face the burden of hosting more refugees.
Turkey is hosting over 3.5 million refugees but its bigger economy has been undone by President Erdogan’s economic mismanagement and the country’s dire COVID-19 infection rates, blunting an effective response if more Syrian refugees land on Turkey’s doorstep.
Iraq hosts almost 250,000 refugees but it is suffering from low oil prices, an ongoing insurgency, and an overt Iranian influence campaign. A new government is finally in place, headed by former security chief Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, and a priority is renegotiating its strategic security relationship with the U.S. so Iraq can create its own space between the U.S. and Iran.
The U.S. State Department says the sanctions won’t “hinder our stabilization activities in northeast Syria” which may concern Iraq and Turkey if they see that policy as encouraging the Kurdish area of Syria (the northeast) to seek independence, thus encouraging their own Kurdish communities to do the same. If that is so, how will Kurdish independence benefit the U.S. if that destabilizes a NATO ally (Turkey) or a country in which it has invested money and lives (Iraq)?
If more sanctions on Syria will cause regional problems why did Washington press for them?
Mostly out of habit.
Sanctions have become Washington’s standoff weapon to avoid politics. They are easy to implement when the editorial pages say “Do something!” and they usually don’t affect the interests of U.S. business. When President Trump ordered a troop withdrawal from Syria (in the end the troops were just moved around) the national security establishment freaked out, but the interventionists knew they had to find another way to get rid of Bashar Al-Assad.
Sanctions mean U.S. officials can avoid having to negotiate with someone like Assad, who is highly motivated to keep his job - and his life (he saw the video of the end of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi). With his life in the balance, he isn’t likely to make concessions just to meet an American Assistant Secretary of State, which may save a U.S. official from the sort of ritual humiliation his father served to then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
And sanctions usually just buttress the positions of corrupt officials, insiders, and regime-connected businessmen. Sanctions against Iraq befitted figures connected to Saddam Hussein and his sons, and in Iran have bolstered the economic empire of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. From the look of the recent sanction designations in Syria the friends and families of Mr. and Mrs. Assad are doing pretty well, also.
To the U.S., Syria was only important as the spoiler of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, and if it could be bribed or suborned to get the deal, great, but then the U.S. could go back to ignoring it.
Russia and Iran see Syria differently. Moscow hasn’t had to remind Damascus of the successful CIA-backed coup in March 1949 and the unsuccessful CIA-backed coup in 1957. It has supported Syria over the long haul and it really wants that base at Tartus, it’s only naval outpost on the Mediterranean Sea. Iran, the target of a successful CIA-backed coup in August 1953, has said it isn’t leaving Syria, which it needs to aid its Lebanese ally Hezbollah. It’s likely that the new sanctions, by further isolating Russia, Iran, and Syria, may drive them closer together. Their shared history won’t hurt.
U.S. sanctions are usually viewed by the targets as part of a regime change operation, not as a means to a “peaceful, political resolution of the conflict” in diplomat-ese. You can throw in some “democracy promotion” and “civil society” but Washington isn’t fooling anyone. Unfortunately for the people in the target states, U.S.-sponsored regime change has rarely worked as intended and has “often produce unintended consequences, such as humanitarian crises and weaker internal security within the targeted state” – like next door in Iraq. In fact, U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey gave the game away when he admitted his goal is to make the Syrian conflict a “quagmire” for Russia. That’s not good news for the Syrian people caught between the Syrian regime anvil and the U.S. hammer. And given the track record of U.S. sanctions in the region – the sanctions against Iraq destroyed the country’s middle class and bred resentments that hobble U.S.-Iraq relations to this day - it looks grim for Syrians.
If sanctions have provisions for trade in non-controlled goods, there is the problem of “over compliance” by the private sector, which hasn’t forgotten the $9 billion fine paid by BNP Paribas for breaking sanctions against Sudan, Iran and Cuba. A consequence of draconian penalties is that subsequent attempts to woo the private sector will fail.
After the Obama administration secured the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear deal, in 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry made a special effort to sell the opportunity to the Europeans saying, “… when people have a question, we are available to answer those questions.” Lawyers in the sanctions trade replied that responses from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to their questions were “vague and noncommittal.” Mr. Stuart Levy, chief legal officer of HSBC Holdings and former Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the U.S. Treasury Department, took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal where he noted Mr. Kerry’s “peculiar message” and confirmed “…HSBC has no intention of doing any new business involving Iran.”
Then, after the Trump administration left the Iran nuclear deal, but not the Iran sanctions, European governments created the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) in order to facilitate trade between Europe in Iran. INSTEX was commissioned on 31 January 2019 and has been used for one transaction – a shipment of medical supplies to Iran.
Sanctions have long-term effects, other than stunted children and a ruined middle class.
Somebody has to bust those sanctions, and the guys that do that successfully can turn their skills into political influence or they can pursue other types of illicit activity. Sanctions increases the pool of people experienced with informal transportation networks, money laundering, the use of
front companies, and corrupting public officials – and often that’s just to trade in legitimate goods. When the shooting stops it’s naïve to think they will all gravitate from high-risk/high-reward, “patriotic” illicit activity to a quiet life approved by the U.S., the United Nations (UN), or the European Union sanctioneers.
Sanctions encourage targets to improvise so they become independent, for example South Africa’s arms industry and nuclear program, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and the Iranian nuclear and missile programs. And once that knowledge is created independent of Western export controls it is uncontrolled.
If the U.S. is leading the charge for sanctions on Syria, will it be expected to help pay for the reconstruction, if this latest set tips over Syria? Probably, but it may not be interested in doing so. After spending over $6.4 trillion in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Pakistan since 2001, the U.S. taxpayer may have had all the nation-building he can stand.
But without significant reconstruction spending, estimated by the UN at around $400 billion, those refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey may not go home, creating Palestinians 2.0 for the host countries. Or else they’ll wash up in Europe.
So, the U.S. used information of uncertain accuracy from a hand-puppet source with unknown motivation to give one last shove to the odious Assad regime and to continue its proxy war against Russia, regardless of the regional consequences. Well, why not? It worked like a charm in Iraq.
By James Durso for Oilprice.com
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