Since early June, the Syrian economy has taken a further dive into an already deep hole. “Famine could very well be knocking on that door”, warned the World Food Program on 12 June. The new U.S. sanctions under the Caesar Civilian Protection Act that kicked in on 17 June will probably push the economy deeper still into the pit, magnifying the misery of ordinary Syrians. At the same time, given the Syrian regime’s track record, it appears unlikely that these sanctions in and of themselves will achieve their stated objective of protecting civilians by “compelling the government of Bashar al-Assad to halt its murderous attacks on the Syrian people and to support a transition to a government in Syria that respects the rule of law”.
It remains uncertain if sanctions could be used as levers toward some other end, such as ensuring unrestricted humanitarian access or consolidating a sustainable ceasefire. At a minimum, the U.S. and its European partners (which have separate sanctions on Syria) should describe the concrete and realistic steps they are asking Damascus and its foreign backers to take, and explicitly lay out the range of partial and reversible sanctions waivers and relief they are prepared to provide in return. The U.S. should also expand the scope of the humanitarian exemptions that it will allow and communicate them proactively to reassure third parties who may otherwise stay away for fear of real or perceived legal penalties, while stepping up its humanitarian assistance to all of Syria to avoid food shortages.
A Self-inflicted Economic Disaster:
According to Damascus and some of its foreign supporters, Western sanctions are mostly to blame for immiserating the population, 83 per cent of whom live below the poverty line. Yet Syria’s economic decay cannot be attributed exclusively, or even mainly, to these sanctions, just as the Syrian lira’s depreciation cannot be pinned on foreign interference or currency manipulation. Rather, it is nine years of war, preceded by decades of rampant corruption that prepared the ground for the 2011 popular uprising, that have ravaged Syria’s economy. In the course of the war, the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies have obliterated vital infrastructure and entire city quarters as part of a deliberate strategy for crushing their opponents.
War has also severely depleted the Syrian government’s revenues. One of the biggest blows came in 2014, when it lost access to many of the country’s natural and agricultural resources, in particular oil and gas but also wheat, which is produced in the north east, now controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). So far, talks between the SDF and the regime over the future of these areas and prospective revenue-sharing arrangements have led nowhere. Elsewhere, the regime has subcontracted areas nominally under its control to paramilitary forces and foreign militias that engage in looting, extortion and smuggling, all of which stand in the way of economic recovery. The implosion of the Lebanese economy and banking system next door has aggravated the crisis. Syrian deposits in Lebanese banks – estimated at up to $40 billion – have become inaccessible; much of that money has likely evaporated. Lebanon also long served as an essential conduit for the Syrian economy to the outside world, allowing it to circumvent sanctions, but the Lebanese financial system’s collapse has shut this channel.
The Syrian government’s response to the crisis has exacerbated the downward trajectory. Remittances from diaspora Syrians to their families back home are one of the country’s few remaining sources of hard currency, but a recent crackdown to curb black-market money transfers and impose a much lower official exchange rate throttled the influx, creating a dollar shortage and robbing thousands of families of the cash infusions on which they rely. In a 4 May meeting, President Bashar al-Assad announced that the state would intervene more heavily to manage the economy, stoking fears among local businesses of further corruption and driving down the currency’s value yet again. Damascus also interferes in the delivery of humanitarian assistance in regime-held areas, forcing international organisations donating food to go through tightly controlled, regime-affiliated agencies, such as the Syria Trust for Development, launched by Assad’s wife Asma (who is on U.S. and EU sanctions lists), and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. Both entities are infamous for exploiting their humanitarian roles for political ends, such as steering assistance away from known opposition areas into loyalist hands. Still, even if Syria’s economic disaster is largely the regime’s fault, Western economic pressure has not helped.
An Ever Expanding Sanctions Regime:
The U.S. sanctions that came into force on 17 June significantly broaden existing ones by aiming to deter third parties from doing business with the Syrian regime unless or until the latter meets certain stated conditions. The legislation, named the Caesar Civilian Protection Act after the alias of a Syrian military photographer who smuggled thousands of images documenting torture and extralegal killings out of Syria in 2013, imposes sanctions on non-U.S. persons and entities that knowingly provide “significant financial, material or technological support to”, or engage in a “significant transaction with”, the Syrian government or military forces in Syria acting on behalf of the regime, Russia or Iran. The law further specifies that the U.S. will apply sanctions to non-U.S. entities providing “significant” goods or services to the regime that help it use aircraft for military purposes or reap the benefits of domestic oil and gas production. The law seeks to further block the flow of funds to Syria that could enable reconstruction by applying sanctions against non-U.S. entities that provide the regime with “significant” construction or engineering services. The deliberate ambiguity of the term “significant” might deter third parties considering deals with Syria, but it also leaves wide discretion for U.S. policymakers to decide on how to prioritise the sanctions’ implementation. The act also gives the U.S. president the right to waive the application of sanctions for up to 180 days on “national security grounds”, which gives flexibility to U.S. negotiators to offer renewable sanctions relief in exchange for more incremental Russian and regime concessions.