Raising questions about the potential harmful effects of sanctions on civilians is an honorable task. As is ensuring that the sanctions meted out by the United States are backed by international norms rather than the whims of a hegemon. But Rebecca Barber’s article in Just Security describing the “Caesar” sanctions — named for a photographer who exposed abuses — against Syrian Government officials as having an undue negative effect on civilians and violating international law overlooks three crucial points. First, the economic hardship Syrian civilians are facing is primarily caused by Damascus’s mismanagement, waste, and cruelty — not American sanctions. Second, the sanctions are targeted, not comprehensive. 

Finally, absent the political will for true multilateral sanctions, extraterritorial sanctions have the greatest potential to effect change, and the use of expansive sanctions should be encouraged as a way for States to uphold the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which has been endorsed by all United Nations member States. The third and final pillar of R2P calls upon the international community to react to the commission of mass atrocity crimes when the host State fails in upholding this responsibility. In the face of international hesitation to prevent mass atrocity crimes through military force, alternatives such as economic sanctions must be on the table in order to fulfill States’ international law responsibilities toward human rights. 

Economic Hardship on Civilians

Many critics of the Caesar sanctions incorrectly connect them to the current freefall of the Syrian economy, a position to which Barber gestures. However, Syria’s economic nightmare began long before the implementation of the Caesar sanctions — or other sanctions, for that matter — and this is important to keep in mind when assessing efforts like the Caesar sanctions. 

Hyperinflation, rising poverty rates, and the destruction of infrastructure in Syria directly result from Syrian Government policy. The regime has long squandered the wealth of its population on the elite inner circle. Iran has sent tens of billions of dollars to the regime, but this is used to pay and equip militias rather than improve citizens’ economic conditions. Damascus and its allies have targeted medical infrastructure, schools, bakeries, and markets as a method of warfare. President Bashar al-Assad’s carnage and his paramilitary’s extortion practices have led much of Syria’s professional class to flee the country. As those who stay contend with mandatory military service, removal of fuel subsidies, and a narrowing private sector, the children of decision makers in Damascus flaunt their sports cars in Dubai. The Syrian Government has allowed cronies to extort Syrian businesses as it continues to siphon international aid through the Assad family. The United States should not allow Damascus and its allies to blame the deteriorating living conditions in Syria on sanctions when the government is engaged in such fundamental mismanagement and repression.

The Syrian Government’s published 2020 annual budget (conveniently) leaves out the budget for the intelligence and military sectors. As two of Syria’s most powerful sectors they are sure to be a significant source of expenditures. The disclosed “National Security” budget for 2020 was set for the equivalent of $257 million. By comparison, the budget set aside for building and construction was $22 million. This discrepancy does not reflect a government that wishes to wrap up fighting, find a political solution to its disagreements, and rebuild. 

The regime’s priorities are clear: they have little interest in improving the lives of the tens of millions of Syrians whose loyalty they question. In fact, the impoverishment and forced expulsion of millions of Syrians seems to be part of the security strategy. The head of Air Force Intelligence stated, “A Syria with 10 million trustworthy people obedient to the leadership is better than a Syria with 30 million vandals … After eight years, Syria will not accept the presence of cancerous cells and they will be removed completely.” The regime has arrested refugees who have returned to Syria and has seized residential districts that hosted the gathering sites in the early days of peaceful rebellion. 

Much of the worst poverty in Syria is concentrated in northwestern and northeastern Syria, which remain outside the total control of the regime and cannot be significantly impacted by the Caesar sanctions. The poverty in these areas partly results from the regime preventing international humanitarian aid from reaching opposition- and Kurdish-held areas. American officials have stated that these sanctions explicitly exclude the Kurdish-governed northeast. Opposition held-northwest Syria has begun adopting the Turkish lira to avoid the rapidly devaluing Syrian lira. 

The poverty and suffering in these regions don’t have to do with sanctions; rather, they are caused by Assad’s tyranny, abetted by his allies Russia and Iran. The regime prevents international humanitarian aid from reaching opposition- and Kurdish-held areas. And Russia has further worked to restrict the access of international aid to these areas through its refusal to reapprove U.N. Security Council resolutions allowing the delivery of aid. Before questioning the value of sanctions, those concerned about the wellbeing of Syrian civilians should first work to ensure that 1) the U.N. Security Council approves cross-border aid deliveries or 2) U.S. and international aid organizations have mechanisms outside of the U.N. framework to ensure that aid is able to reach these areas that are purposefully rejected by Damascus. 

Moreover, sanctions are a key tool for limiting loopholes the regime has used to line the pockets of its inner circle and continue to fuel its destruction machine.

Caesar Sanctions Are Not Comprehensive Sanctions

More narrowly related to Barber’s argument, her article wrongly suggests that the Caesar sanctions are not targeted. She notes that many extraterritorial sanctions are “often also comprehensive,” as opposed to targeted toward specific individuals and entities of an offending party. She then goes on to show the evidence of comprehensive sanction’s harmful effects on civilians. But the Caesar sanctions are not comprehensive. 

The bill authorizes sanctioning individuals who:

  • finance the government of Syria, its senior political figures, or foreign paramilitaries operating on its behalf; 
  • sell or provide items pertaining to the government’s domestic production of natural gas, petroleum, and petroleum products; 
  • sell or provide military aircraft or parts for use by, or on behalf of, the Syrian Government; or 
  • provide construction or engineering services to the government. 

Humanitarian aid — even aid going to regime areas — and the humanitarian and medical sectors are explicitly not to be touched by these sanctions. 

The first round of sanctions in this program designated 39 specific officials and entities, 30 of which had already been designated under previous U.S. sanctions programs. The designated individuals include Assad, his wife Asma, security directors like Ghassan Bilal, and businessmen like Mohamed Hamsho. These are Syria’s wealthy, who have used external funding to continue to fuel Damascus’s security state. A security state from which the namesake of this bill — a defector codenamed Caesar — escaped with photos documenting the regularized atrocities in Syrian prisons. The Hamsho family has funded militias that are known for looting and reselling scrap metal from the cities they ravage. Bilal runs a Syrian detention facility where detainees disappear without legal documentation. Designated entities include the Fatemiyoun Division — an Iranian-backed Afghan militia fighting in Syria. 

The existing designations are thus narrow, but even if the U.S. government were to take full advantage of the law’s scope, this program would not rise to the level of comprehensive sanctions. These sanctions are not like the much-despised comprehensive sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq which banned all trade and financial resources to the country itself, as opposed to specified individuals. 

Extraterritoriality Promotes Effectiveness

Barber also expresses concerns about the legality of these sanctions’ extraterritorial nature. These new sanctions, referred to as “secondary sanctions,” not only ban U.S. individuals and entities from engaging with select Syrian officials, but also punish non-Americans for engaging with sanctioned individuals. In this way, the Caesar sanctions have more teeth than previous sanctions regimes, including with respect to the 30 officials and entities who had already been designated under other U.S. programs.

Setting aside the legality argument — though as Barber acknowledges, secondary sanctions are nothing new for the United States — the reality is that extraterritorial sanctions may be the best policy option to ensure sanctions are effective. Barber is right to say that the most effective sanctions are multilateral. U.S. sanctions will be more effective if they can convince others — including partners like the United Arab Emirates, which continue to deal with the Syrian Government — to join. But since Russia has vetoed efforts to enforce multilateral sanctions against Damascus at the Security Council, the United States should be applauded for extending their piecemeal enforcement mechanisms. 

Other versions of secondary sanctions, like those enforced by the United States starting in 2019 on actors dealing with Cuba, have been criticized by the European Union. But those sanctions have less to do with punishing mass atrocity crimes and more to do with the Trump administration’s political differences with Havana, including Cuba’s relationship with Venezuela, treatment of American diplomatic staff, and embrace of socialist policies. The reasoning behind extraterritorial sanctions against Syria is wholly different. It is not merely about isolating a rogue actor from the American economy, but ensuring that the drivers of what Amnesty International calls “the worst humanitarian crisis of our time” cannot find the revenue to continue driving their killing machine. Primary sanctions, restricting only U.S. individuals and entities’ activities, are not enough to accomplish this while the UAE, India, and China provide resources to Damascus. 

Importance of Reinforcing Responsibility to Protect   

The U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) has condemned the Syrian Government multiple times for its role in war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria. A 2015 HRC-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) report found that Damascus committed war crimes and crimes against humanity as a matter of state policy. R2P’s Pillar 3 obligation allows States to undertake non-military responses — including the imposition of sanctions — to mass atrocity crimes. The responsibility of international States to react to a host State’s failure to protect their citizens from mass atrocity crimes is reinforced by Common Article 1 of the Geneva Convention, Article 1 of the Genocide Convention, and Article 41 of the Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts

International law experts differ on how exactly the international community should respond to mass atrocity crimes when the State in which they are occurring is the main driver of these crimes. States have long hesitated to use force to protect civilians — sometimes for good reason, sometimes not — and sanctions have become perhaps the default tool for imposing costs on those who would target civilians. Of course, policymakers should always seek to design sanctions so that they are carefully targeted and avoid unintended civilian harm. But the Caesar sanctions are carefully designed in this way, and they strengthen R2P’s third pillar and reinforce mechanisms outside of armed intervention for the prevention of mass atrocity crimes.

In my view, Barber rightly calls attention to the importance of human rights impact assessments and monitoring mechanisms. The United States must ensure that these targeted sanctions do not have an undue effect on civilians and make sanctions and future waivers adaptable to unforeseen circumstances. In particular, banks and other private actors should be disincentivized from overcompliance that could affect Syrian citizens around the world. 

There can be much to criticize about these sanctions: if alone they are enough to bring about changes in the regime’s behavior, if their response mechanisms are flexible enough, and if humanitarian waivers promised will actually be easy to grant and use. But their existence is an important reinforcement of international law in the face of a regime that has very little interest in the wellbeing of its own citizens.

Image: A street that was partially destoyed during the offensive to recapture the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants, on October 23, 2016 in Bartella, Iraq. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)