Analysis

As Assad Marks 20 Years of Brutal Rule, U.S. Tries to Force His Hand by Sanctioning Allies

Washington is due to slap harsher sanctions on Syria and those who help it, but that will likely do little to deter Russia and Iran from aiding the regime

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A demonstration against American sanctions on Syria in Damascus, June 11, 2020.
A demonstration against American sanctions on Syria in Damascus, June 11, 2020.Credit: AFP

This month the United States is due to slap the toughest set of sanctions on Syria, as part of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, a law that was passed in December of 2019 and allows the American administration to impose sanctions on foreign companies and countries that have helped the Syrian regime in its operations against civilians.

“Caesar” is a reference to the code name of a Syrian police officer who deserted in 2013 and revealed 50,000 photographs taken in Syrian prisons and hospitals, depicting the war crimes committed by the regime. High-resolution photos of crushed limbs, mutilated genitalia and dismembered bodies were downloaded to Caesar’s computer, and he distributed them across Europe after fleeing Syria.

Caesar zealously protects his anonymity, fearing for his life, but his atrocious pictures led the United States Congress to formulate a law aimed at putting an end to the carnage in Syria. The officer who defected testified before Congress in 2014 but it took the legislative body five years to enshrine the law.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee hears testimony from 'Caesar,' in the blue hood, March 11, 2020.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee hears testimony from 'Caesar,' in the blue hood, March 11, 2020.Credit: J. Scott Applewhite,AP

This legislation includes sanctioning any individual, company or state that engages in trade with Syria or aids the regime in any other way and is similar to the laws imposing sanctions on Iran.

The United States set seven criteria for removing the sanctions – Syria and Russia must cease using Syrian airspace to strike civilians; zones controlled by Syria, Russia and Iran will be opened to transfer humanitarian aid; Syria will release all political prisoners; Syrian, Russian and other forces will not bomb health centres, clinics or hospitals; the Syrian regime will take legal steps against those who have committed war crimes, allow the return of refugees and compensate civilians for the death of their relatives.

This very detailed legislation covers all the economic and military activities not only of Syria but also of Iran and Russia. However, the law doesn’t explain how the United States intends to obligate Russia and Iran to stick to its provisions nor does it mention whether Washington intends to impose further sanctions on Iran and Russia at a time when the Americans are conducting talks with Moscow about the future of Libya and are trying to reach a joint solution for the decade-long crisis in Syria.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, center right, speaks with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, center left, before their meeting in Damascus, Syria, Monday, March 23, 2020.
Syrian President Bashar Assad, center right, speaks with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, center left, before their meeting in Damascus, Syria, Monday, March 23, 2020.Credit: AP

It’s safe to assume that Russia and Iran will not be particularly impressed by the prohibitions and punishments set forth in the law, while the Syrian regime is already subjected to harsh sanctions, which means the new additions are not expected to change the state of the economy in any significant way.

Washington has made clear that the Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Syria will be exempted from the sanctions, but these provinces engage in extensive trade with the Syrian regime, selling it oil, wheat, and other produce.

Paradoxically, the law doesn’t at all mention Turkey, which has occupied parts of northern Syria and together with Russia is controlling the security zones there. In recent months, Turkey and the militias operating on its behalf have been accused of harming Kurdish civilians who reside in the city of Afrin, which has been occupied by Ankara.

Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Damascus, Syria, April. 20, 2020.
Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Damascus, Syria, April. 20, 2020. Credit: ,AP

While the efficacy and power of the Caesar Law are yet to be proven on the ground, the United States is threatening to re-impose the international sanctions on Iran that were lifted after the signing of the 2015 nuclear accord. The expiration of the arms embargo imposed on Tehran as part of the nuclear agreement may lead the United States to follow through on its threat. The embargo prevents Iran from buying or selling conventional weapons over the course of five years from the day the agreement was signed, a period that will end in mid-October of this year.

Russia and China, as well as the European countries which are signatories to the nuclear accord, including the embargo provision, are opposed to extending it as the United States is demanding. Therefore, Washington is threatening to enact the “snapback” provision in the agreement that would reimpose international sanctions on Iran if it violates the terms.

Iran did publicly violate the nuclear accord – a year after the United States unilaterally withdrew from it in 2018 – but since Washington is no longer a party to the agreement, it cannot demand the reenactment of sanctions.

America’s sanctions policy has thus far not succeeded in engendering the diplomatic results to which it aspires. Iran and Syria have not changed their policies and none of the sanctions imposed on both countries is demanding to replace a regime.

According to some theories, in order for sanctions to succeed they have to make clear to regimes that they won’t be able to continue to manage their countries and survive unless they comply with the demands of those who initiated the sanctions. Successful sanctions are aimed at bringing about civil revolt against the regime or causing the regime to fear such revolt if it does not change its ways. In both Iran and Syria this threat is not working, just as it did not work over the course of the more than a dozen years when sanctions were imposed on Iraq.

After nine years of war that are the result of the deadliest civil revolt the Arab world has ever seen, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime has regained control in most parts of the country and is recognized by most nations as the only realistic option for ruling Syria.

In Iran, despite the protests and the demonstrations, the regime is not planning to make changes from within. Surprisingly, the American sanctions have created an interdependence between Iran and Syria in which each country must adhere to its policy to prevent the collapse of the other and stand firm against American sanctions.

A man walks past window shops while nearby pillars are adorned with posters showing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, on June 10, 2020.
A man walks past window shops while nearby pillars are adorned with posters showing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, on June 10, 2020.Credit: AFP

The son's ascension

For Assad, this is a new experience in managing international relations. It is another stage in his rapid development as a leader who was cast out of the Arab League, lost direct control in Lebanon, has found himself in a tough game between superpowers and has remained the only leader who has not been deposed as part of the Arab spring. Presumably, his father would have been proud of him.

Twenty years ago this week, on June 10, 2000, a month after the Israel Defense Forces pulled out of Lebanon, the Middle East was shaken up by the news of the death of Hafez Assad. This was no surprise. The leader who had controlled Syria for about 30 years began preparing his country for his successor several years before his death and after having suffered a number of heart attacks.

In 1994, Hafez called back his son Bashar from London, where he had specialized in ophthalmology, and started grooming him as his heir. Bashar was not his father’s first choice. He had destined the role for his energetic eldest son Bassel who loved fast cars and enjoyed everything life has to offer. But Bassel died in a car accident, leaving the clumsy Bashar, who lacked experience in politics and military matters, as the only option to lead the country.

Bashar’s training was fast, catapulting him through military ranks and even though he was just 34 years old, six years younger than the age stipulated in the constitution for qualifying to be president, the constitution was amended accordingly and he became the youngest president in the Middle East.

Syrian presidential guards, waving pictures of President Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar, pay their last respects to their late president in Damascus, on June 13, 2000.
Syrian presidential guards, waving pictures of President Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar, pay their last respects to their late president in Damascus, on June 13, 2000.Credit: AFP

One month after his father died, he was sworn in as president, and in the elections held that same year he had already won a landslide and foreknown victory in which he received 97.27 per cent of the vote.

The tall young man who had returned from London with a stylish stubble beard became within a short time the hope of Syria and the entire Middle East. He found himself in the company of two other young men who had inherited their thrones from their fathers a year earlier. These were King Abdullah of Jordan, who was crowned in June of 1999, and King Mohammed VI of Morocco, who was crowned in July of 1999, exactly one year before Assad’s ascension.

Twenty years later, the first period of Bashar Assad’s rule looks like it was taken from the books of fairy tales. Although he was surrounded by the veteran military officers his father had bequeathed him and was totally dependent on the advice of the Syrian intelligence and political machines, he decided to open up public discourse, allow political debates and articles critical of the system of government.

His conduct sparked the hope that Syria under his rule was going to be a new, open, economically flourishing country that extends its hand not only to the Western countries but also to Western culture. The public stage hosted liberal intellectuals like economist Aref Dalila, sociologist Burhan Ghalloun, businessman Riad Seif and many others, who took seriously the clean air Assad was bringing into the country and believed that Syria was returning to its distant past, from before the Ba’ath regime, in which intellectuals had a place of honour in shaping its future.

However, the “Damascus spring,” as that brief period was called, ended within a few weeks. The “machines” made it clear to the young president that the governing hierarchy would crash, the family wealth would disappear and the “correct” order would end if he continued to allow the leftists and liberals to promote democratic ideas.

The was also no lack of threats of a military coup to force Assad’s hand and make it clear to him that Syria is not Britain and that the political, military and economic elite did not intend to relinquish its status and the perquisites it had obtained in in his father’s day. The political salons were shut down, many of the intellectuals were arrested, some of them were sentenced to prison terms on charges of “causing harm to public order,” others were exiled from the country and the government menu that had served Assad the father returned to serve his son.

Of the three new young leaders that had risen to the pinnacle of rule in their countries, Assad became the most brutal even before the civil revolt broke out in March of 2011, which has thus far caused the deaths of more than 7 million civilians.

After 20 years of rule during half of which he has been engaged in war against his own citizens, the elegant eye doctor is not just continuing to murder his patients. He has created around himself a strategic safety belt in which Iran and Russia are partners, each of them for its own reasons, leaving the United States under President Donald Trump out of the game and with packages of sanctions for which the citizens will pay.