The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019 will now head to the president’s desk as part of Congress’ annual defense authorization bill, which the Senate approved on Tuesday following House action last week. The Caesar Act marks the culmination of a five-year effort to intensify sanctions on the Bashar al-Assad regime and its foreign enablers as one means of holding them accountable for ongoing mass atrocities.
“Caesar” is the code name of a Syrian military photographer who fled the country in 2013 with 55,000 digital images showing the corpses of men, women, and children detained by the regime. The images show more than 11,000 corpses, thousands of which display clear indications of torture, such as beatings, starvation, strangulation, and eye gouging. The FBI’s Digital Evidence Laboratory examined 242 of Caesar’s images and concluded there was no evidence of digital manipulation.
Wearing sunglasses and a hood to protect his identity, Caesar briefed the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) in July 2014 about the Assad regime’s documentation of its atrocities. In mid-2016, as the American failure to prevent further atrocities became increasingly apparent, HFAC leadership introduced the first version of the Caesar Act, whose 89 co-sponsors spanned the partisan spectrum.
One key provision of the act that has remained constant since 2016 is its imposition of sanctions on any foreign person – in other words, not just any American – who “knowingly engages in a significant transaction” with the Assad regime. The current version of the bill also prohibits transactions with key Assad allies, such as Russian military contractors or Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its associated militias, including Hezbollah.
Sanctions on foreign persons who transact with blacklisted targets are known as secondary sanctions, in contrast to primary sanctions, which only prohibit such transactions by U.S. persons. The secondary sanctions mandated by the Caesar Act seek to prevent foreign firms – most likely Russian, Chinese, or Iranian – from participating in the Assad regime’s reconstruction initiatives. To that end, the bill specifically lists the provision of significant construction and engineering services to the regime as a sanctionable activity.
Prior to this month’s votes, the House had approved the Caesar Act on three separate occasions since 2016, and the Senate voted in favor one time. The original version had 89 cosponsors from across the ideological spectrum, and the second version had 108, yet congressional leaders were never able to arrange a vote on final passage.
In November 2018, the White House took the unusual step of calling for the act’s passage. Ultimately, congressional leaders assured a decisive vote by inserting the Caesar Act into the annual defense authorization bill, which has passed every year for more than half a century.
Once the president signs the Caesar Act into law, the first challenge will be to ensure aggressive enforcement. The Treasury Department has already shown its determination to expose illicit networks engaged in the export of crude oil to Syria. Now it will have a mandate to pursue a much broader set of targets, while also seeking to apply “maximum pressure” to Iran.
The prospects for success may depend on Treasury’s having sufficient resources and personnel to carry out its new mandate. Likewise, the State Department’s sanctions office will need sufficient staff and funding, since the secretary of state is responsible for designating certain types of sanctions targets.
During years of deliberation over the Caesar Act, the crimes of Assad and his partners have only grown in scale, from the deliberate bombing of hospitals to the use of chemical weapons. The passage of the Caesar Act is long overdue.
David Adesnik is director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Tyler Stapleton is an adjunct fellow. They both contribute to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from David, Tyler, and CEFP, subscribe HERE. Follow them on Twitter @adesnik and @Ty_D_Stapleton. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.