July 30, 2021 | Policy Brief

After Six-Month Wait, Biden Administration Imposes First Syria Sanctions

July 30, 2021 | Policy Brief

After Six-Month Wait, Biden Administration Imposes First Syria Sanctions

The departments of State and Treasury announced on Wednesday the imposition of sanctions on eight Syrian prisons and five officials in charge of them as part of the administration’s efforts to protect human rights and advance the objectives of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019. The new sanctions target a set of entities and individuals responsible for numerous atrocities, but the designations are unlikely to deprive the Bashar al-Assad regime of the resources necessary to sustain its calamitous war effort.

Caesar is the pseudonym of a Syrian military photographer who collected tens of thousands of digital images of tortured corpses, which he made public after defecting from the regime and sought asylum abroad. The law bearing Caesar’s name authorized new categories of sanctions to intensify pressure on the Assad regime. State and Treasury both emphasized that Caesar’s images documented abuse at many of the designated prisons.

The administration also imposed human rights sanctions on both Saraya al-Areen, a militia associated with the Syrian army, and Ahrar al-Sharqiya, an armed opposition group responsible for abusing Syrian Kurds. In a separate action on the same day, Treasury imposed sanctions on Farrukh Fayzimatov, a fundraiser for the Syrian jihadi terrorist organization Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

The Caesar Act passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in December 2019. The previous administration issued its first designations the day the law went into effect the following June, then sanctioned additional targets each month for the remainder of 2020. In total, the previous administration designated 113 targets, including key figures in regime-controlled business enterprises, such as Khodr Ali Taher and Yasser Ibrahim.

The sanctions prescribed by the Caesar Act are mandatory, so the Biden administration has an obligation to designate all those engaged in sanctionable activity. The enforcement pause that began after President Joe Biden took office led to questions about whether the administration was looking for a pretext to suspend the law’s implementation. On multiple occasions, the State Department denied that was the case. A senior official told journalists in May, “The Caesar Act was passed by an overwhelming majority of the American Congress. So the administration is going to implement the law.”

This week’s sanctions leave open the question of whether the administration wants to exert maximal pressure on the Assad regime or simply prefers to satisfy the letter of the law by designating targets with little or no economic significance. If the administration is committed to escalating economic pressure, it should focus on three areas: narco-trafficking, illicit crude oil imports from Iran, and the regime’s expropriation of much of the humanitarian aid paid for by Western governments and distributed by UN agencies.

An in-depth report by the Center for Operational Analysis and Research on the Assad regime’s narco-trafficking found that in 2020, the regime exported synthetic stimulants, mainly Captagon, with a street value of nearly $3.5 billion. In comparison, the Syrian government’s proposed budget for 2021 entailed only $2.7 billion of spending (although much of what the government spends is likely off the books). Since the beginning of the war in 2011, the regime’s financial survival has also depended on crude oil deliveries from Iran. A single Suezmax tanker can deliver 1 million barrels of crude, with a current market value of about $75 per barrel.

Finally, the regime has found numerous ways to divert humanitarian assistance to its own coffers. For example, official procurement data show that UN agencies spent $70.1 million at the regime-controlled Four Seasons Damascus from 2014 through 2020.

This week’s sanctions may represent a first step toward meaningful enforcement of the Caesar Act. The pace of future designations and the economic significance of the targets will determine whether the administration is fully committed to its goal, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it on Wednesday, of “taking action to promote accountability for entities and individuals that have perpetuated the suffering of the Syrian people.”

David Adesnik is research director and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from David and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow David on Twitter @adesnik. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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