How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
In “The Pointless Cruelty of Trump’s New Syria Sanctions” (August 17, 2020), Joshua Landis and Steven Simon argue that the new American sanctions imposed against backers of the Syrian regime harm ordinary Syrians and fail to advance core American interests. The authors ignore the fact, however, that the main source of Syria’s suffering is the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, whose atrocities have gone unchecked for almost a decade. The new U.S. sanctions help limit the Assad regime’s ability to harm its people, which is good for both Syria and the United States.
The authors imply that the new sanctions, which are part of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act (2019), are an initiative of the Trump administration. Yet the Caesar sanctions are the product of congressional legislation passed with wide bipartisan support and engagement from Syrian civil society groups. Framing the sanctions as a policy of President Donald Trump’s administration overlooks the concerted efforts of diverse advocates and obscures the fact that the sanctions survived bipartisan scrutiny for years before being added to the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.
The Caesar Act takes its name from the code-named military defector who leaked more than 50,000 photos of prisoners being systematically tortured and killed by the Syrian government. Tens of thousands of people have been arrested and tortured in the regime’s prisons since 2011, and arbitrary arrests in territory retaken by the government continue to this day. The Assad regime has never granted the Red Cross access to detainees, and to make room for new prisoners, the government conducts mass executions: war crimes investigators with the nonprofit Commission for International Justice and Accountability have found government memos detailing deaths in detention, and The New York Times and others have reported the discovery of mass graves where political prisoners are buried.
By imposing sanctions on Syria, the United States denies war criminals access to cash and furthers American interests, stopping the outflow of refugees, for example, and preventing the next Islamic State (also known as ISIS) from emerging. Caesar sanctions signal to Assad and other autocrats that scorched-earth tactics—such as targeting hospitals and systematically disappearing, torturing, and cremating the bodies of political prisoners—will not be dismissed as something normal. The European Union, too, recognizes that war crimes must not be rewarded, and it has joined the United States in enforcing the new sanctions against the Assad regime.
Landis and Simon note that the sanctions policy “blocks reconstruction” and leads to the “impoverishment” of the Syrians. They fail to mention, however, that Assad is primarily responsible for the destruction and starvation that sanctions may or may not exacerbate. Sanctions may damage Syria’s economy, yet the regime, Russia, and Iran have spent billions to destroy Syria’s infrastructure, which they now want the rest of the world to rehabilitate. Although Assad has attempted to lure foreign investment, reconstruction for the sake of all Syrians is low on his priority list. He has obstructed Syria’s remittance economy—a last economic lifeline for many Syrians—by making the possession of foreign currency a crime. Residential neighborhoods such as Baba Amr in Homs remain in ruins, and medical staff in underfunded hospitals treat thousands of unreported COVID-19 patients in poor conditions, even as regime insiders use new property laws to seize land and build luxury developments. As part of its strategy to win back territory, the regime, aided by Iran and Hezbollah, have besieged and starved as many as 18 Syrian towns and more than half a million people for years. The United States and the European Union have good reason to doubt that the dictator who barrel bombed civilian centers truly intends to rebuild the homes of the Syrian citizens he views as germs.
Landis and Simon cite the mass starvation of Iraqis under the pressure of sanctions during the 1990s to highlight the inhumanity of sanctions. But the United States can work with the European Union to make the application of sanctions more humane. After the U.S. government imposed the latest round of sanctions on Iran, for example, it allowed the Swiss and the South Korean governments to set up special humanitarian trade channels with Tehran, which permit the import of food, pharmaceuticals, and medical supplies. The United States should approve similar humanitarian channels with Syria, and it should further establish a joint U.S.-EU humanitarian mechanism to ensure that financial institutions and humanitarian organizations can continue to serve needy Syrian civilians. The effects of sanctions on civilians vary from context to context, and these effects should be measured by economic and humanitarian experts in the context of Syria—not Iraq or Libya. To the extent that sanctions present policymakers with moral dilemmas, there is no such problem for which impunity for Assad and his backers is the answer. Unlike the comprehensive Iraq sanctions, the Caesar sanctions are targeted. They do not aim to stop all business with Syria but target the specific individuals and businesses that finance senior members of the Assad regime and foreign paramilitaries acting on the Syrian regime’s behalf. Such selective sanctions do not need to be costly to the whole of society in order to impede the patronage networks that sustain Assad and his regime.
Trump’s broader Syria policy lacks cohesion, as Landis and Simon rightly note. But linked to a more comprehensive military and diplomatic effort, sanctions can ultimately protect civilians. They helped pressure Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi to renounce terrorism and his weapons of mass destruction programs in the 2000s and Iran to negotiate in the 2010s. Even Landis and Simon concede that “Assad is likely to agree to substantial concessions” in order to have the sanctions lifted.
The United States has more and better options than Landis and Simon suggest. If Washington engages with the infamously corrupt Saudi government, the authors claim, it ought not to have qualms about engaging with Assad. This line of thinking not only dovetails with Chinese and Russian talking points but ignores the efforts of past U.S. administrations to shape Saudi behavior. A prospective Biden administration, too, would likely seek to confront Saudi excesses. Nor are all problematic regimes created equal: a regime responsible for all that Assad has overseen cannot be treated like other governments.
The Syrian state bears far more responsibility for the country’s abysmal humanitarian situation than do the corrupt, armed opposition groups to which Landis and Simon point. Since 2011, the Assad regime has diverted and blocked aid delivery within regime-held territories and cross-border delivery to nonregime areas. Yielding to Assad, UN agencies have given Damascus the authority to completely direct aid distribution, with insufficient oversight and disproportionate delivery to pro-regime areas. A 2016 report from the Syria Campaign found that the UN has allowed the Syrian regime to direct 88 percent of food aid to territories that it controls.
Landis and Simon compare U.S. policies aimed at raising the stakes for Assad and his backers to those of the Vietnam era. A better comparison would be Lebanon, whose fatally corrupt ruling class was never held accountable for its crimes during the country’s 15-year civil war. A similar lack of accountability in countries from the Philippines and China to Sudan and Egypt has emboldened leaders to crack down violently on their citizens.
The authors claim to have the Syrians’ interests at heart. Yet they call for full engagement with a war criminal who shattered the lives of millions of his own citizens and, with the support of Iran, Russia, and would-be profiteers of Syria’s reconstruction, will continue to strangle efforts for transparent and responsible governance—among other U.S. interests—in the region. The solution to “ending endless wars” starts with recognizing and committing to solve the root causes of a given conflict. For whoever occupies the White House beyond January 2021, the test of that commitment starts in Syria.
ADHAM SAHLOUL is a foreign policy analyst and a contributor to the Center for Global Policy.
SANA SEKKARIE is a master’s candidate in the Security Studies Program at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and a former Research Fellow at Atlantic Media.
SANDY ALKOUTAMI is a foreign policy analyst and a former Junior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Program.
We appreciate Adham Sahloul, Sana Sekkarie, and Sandy Alkoutami’s response to our essay, and we share their conviction that war criminals should be held accountable. Unfortunately, the sanctions they defend will not deliver justice. It is impossible to review the historical evidence, as we have, without concluding that broad economic sanctions, such as those now imposed on Damascus under the Caesar Act, hold the wrong people accountable. The Caesar sanctions simply compound the many injustices already endured by Syrian civilians.
The notion that tougher sanctions will deter other would-be tyrants is also unsupported by the facts. From Nazi Germany to North Korea, punitive sanctions have neither toppled authoritarian regimes nor ensured the safety of civilians under their rule, let alone saved the world from the next Pol Pot or Saddam Hussein. Moreover, even if the authors’ assertion were true, and deliberately starving civilians in one country somehow helped discourage aspiring despots in another, we believe that sacrificing millions of Syrian lives to prevent hypothetical future abuses elsewhere is profoundly wrong.
Sahloul and his co-authors are understandably distressed by the outcome of the conflict in Syria and wish to relitigate it. Unable to do so on the ground, they look to outside actors, as all sides have done throughout the war. They now hope that American intervention via sanctions will succeed where earlier U.S. efforts to arm and train local fighters failed, and it is disappointing, although unsurprising, that this hope has seduced many in Washington, too. The United States is habituated to sanctions as a way to deal with challenges that don’t rise to the level of armed response but are too transgressive to ignore. Sanctions, however, are not always an alternative to war, let alone a good one. Often, they are simply war in another form—one guaranteed to hurt the poorest and the most vulnerable long before they are felt by combatants or members of the ruling elite.
The authors of the rebuttal are correct to detail the barbarity of the Syrian Arab Army, which has bombed rebel-held neighborhoods, hospitals, and bakeries in its efforts to win. But they are wrong to paint the long Syrian conflict as a struggle between good and evil. It is a civil war, and as Stathis Kalyvas, a specialist on civil wars, has observed, such conflicts are distinguished from interstate wars by their barbarism. The excesses of the opposition militias were also notable: in areas these militias conquered, few ethnic or religious minority families remain after thousands of Christians, Yezidis, Druze, and Kurds were displaced or killed. Over 100,000 Alawites, out of a population of some 2.5 million, died as well, along with many members of the urban middle class who clung to the promise of order, even one as oppressive as that offered by the Assad government. The point is not to demonize the rebels or to excuse the government’s brutality, but to underline the fact that both sides threw out the international rules of war because they understood that defeat likely meant annihilation.
Finally, the claim that targeted, “smart” sanctions hurt only regime principals is demonstrably false. Data and anecdotal evidence to the contrary are abundant and publicly available. The devastating effects of sanctions on Iraq’s population in the 1990s has never been in dispute, and UN observers report that a similar humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in Syria today. According to Idriss Jazairy, the UN rapporteur on sanctions, “unilateral sanctions applied to Syria have visited untold sufferings on ordinary people.” Seeking to combat rights violations by imposing sanctions, he continued, is like trying “to extinguish a blaze with fire rather than water.” Policymakers in the United States and Europe should heed Jazairy’s warning.
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