Syria: Old Pretexts, New Sanctions, Still Counterproductive

This week, the United States is hitting new sanctions on Syria. Compounding existing EU and American sanctions on state assets as well as hundreds of companies and individuals, these are set to become the toughest sanctions yet throughout the entire conflict. Given the falling apart of the "Assad gasses his own people" narrative, American lawmakers have resorted to a news story that hit front pages five years ago. The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, slipped into the National Defense Authorization Act which passed with bipartisan support in December 2019, refers to the so-called "Caesar torture photos." These horrific photos purported to show the "industrial scale" torture and killing of 11.000 detainees by the Syrian authorities. While a closer look at the story suggests that torture and abuse at the hands of Assad’s regime is likely closer to those practiced by foes and allies alike in the region, Caesar’s revelations were nevertheless significant in exposing the brutality of the regime. Yet, like then, the tragedy is being employed by Washington war hawks not, as they claim, "to halt the wholesale slaughter of the Syrian people," but to put on sanctions that might actually strengthen Assad’s grip on power and will undoubtedly harm those very civilians it seeks to uplift.

Old pretexts

Sensational news stories alleging war crimes and human rights violations by the Syrian regime almost as a rule tend to bombard global public opinion at strategic moments in the war. The Caesar torture photos is no exception. The story broke on 20 January 2014, two days before the United Nations’ Geneva II Conference on Syria kicked off in Switzerland. Two years earlier, the first Geneva talks were concluded with an agreement concerning the need for a transitional government that could include both members of the current government and the opposition. In hindsight, such a transitional government might seem unrealistic given the fact that the fledging civil war has continued unabated, yet moderately successful results have been achieved with this formula in Tunisia and Egypt during the Arab Spring and as recent as 2019 in Sudan. Emboldened by claims that Assad used chemical weapons in August of 2013, however, the Americans had started to double down on their insistence of Assad’s removal as a precondition to transition in the lead-up to the conference. The release of the torture report stoked the fires even more, as indeed opposition spokesperson for the Syrian National Coalition Ahmad Jabra referred to the report in order to demand Assad’s resignation. Conversely, Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem called states backing the armed opposition "traitors." Unsurprisingly, no results were achieved.

The propagandistic employment of the revelations is painstakingly evident from the players behind the scene. First and foremost, Qatar paid for its publication. The chain of custody of the photographs seems to have been established through contacts with opposition groups sponsored by the wealthy Gulf monarchy. Given that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey were actively conspiring regime change operations since 2011 according to the former Qatari prime minister, it is a safe assumption that the Qatari government sought to exploit the source politically upon learning about him. Indeed, it wasted no time in hiring the London-based law firm Carter-Ruck, who rushed to interview Caesar three times and publish the report all in little over a week time in mid-January 2014, just in time to hit the news reels before Geneva II. Moreover, the legal inquiry team included David M. Crane, an American who has a career with the Defense Department and the Defense Intelligence Agency behind him. Crane testified to Congress in 2013, where he called for the establishment of a Syrian war crimes tribunal in which "President Assad and his henchmen," primarily, and members of the opposition, secondarily, could be prosecuted. In short, as Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor put it at the time, the report was above all "a well-timed propaganda exercise funded by Qatar."

More troublesome, as Murphy went on, is the fact that "the report itself is nowhere near as credible as it makes out." Due to the self-imposed time constraints, the team examined only 10% of the 55.000 pictures and evaluated in detail only 835 deceased persons, not more than 20% of whom showed evidence of inflicted trauma. Moreover, it took until March 2015 before the images were released in full, long after the desired effect had been achieved and the peace talks ended in disarray. A more credible investigation later that year was published by Human Rights Watch, which from the outset made clear that only half the photos showed people that appeared to have died in government custody. The other half are images of dead soldiers and security forces who died in battle or, it should be noted, in explosions, assassinations, car bombs and other terrorist attacks – a reminder of the extremely violent nature of some of the rebelling factions. Nevertheless, the opposition-linked group that examined all the photos found that the first category counted 6.786 separate dead individuals, each with their own unique identification number. But, as Rick Sterling pointed out in Consortium News, these deaths are not all unambiguous torture deaths. For instance, some might have been rebels who died in combat, because some photos show decomposing bodies that were perhaps picked up after they died. Indeed, the evidence indicates that Caesar was not assigned to make sure that "orders to kill" had been followed, as the Carter-Ruck firm alleged, but to document wartime deaths, including but not limited to political prisoners that died in regime detention.

This is not to say that many Syrians are not randomly imprisoned, locked up without trial in inhumane conditions, abused, tortured and killed in the cells of the political Mukhabarat police. Human Rights Watch was able to verify the identity of 27 deceased detainees, including a 14-year-old boy and a woman, who medical analysis and testimonies of 37 former prisoners makes clear without a shred of a doubt died of the consequences of deliberate malnourishment, poor hygiene and health conditions, or torture. Moreover, a previous Human Rights Watch report from 2012 had already detailed the widespread practice of torture employed by the Assad regime. But a similar report from the same year documents the kidnappings, torture and extrajudicial executions of government forces at the hands of the armed opposition. Indeed, nowhere near as much media attention is given to the gruesome crimes of the rebels, such as, to take just one example, the beheading of a 19-year-old by US-backed "moderates." What’s more, Western media and global governing bodies such as the UN have time and again since the beginning of the conflict fallen prey to rebel propaganda falsely pinning their massacres on Assad, such as dreadful slaughter of more than 100 pro-government civilians in Houla in 2012. The same goes for Western allies. Saudi Arabia executed a record number of 184 prisoners in 2019, and just less than two months ago, a journalist and opposition activist died in a Qatari prison, possibly as a consequence of torture.

The question, then, remains why hawkish American lawmakers chose to resort to a five-year-old story that most people have forgotten by now. Why not the emotionally evocative meme of Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons between 2013 and 2018? This is an allegation that has likely stuck even with people totally disinterested in the tragic conflict. Why not put these appalling claims at the forefront, since they have been at the center of depicting the Syrian president as an inhumane monster – or animal, as Trump called him? Well, as I demonstrated in a previous article for this site, multiple whistleblowers from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are blowing that narrative apart as we speak. The fact that the media is totally ignoring their mind-boggling revelations shows that those screaming from the rooftops for new sanctions are not the least interested in the truth – and neither in the well-being of Syrian civilians.

New sanctions

This is abundantly clear from the new sanctions. Like all sanctions, they are economic warfare instruments aiming at political change in the target country. A State Department official explained that the Trump administration hopes the new sanctions would stoke anti-Assad unrest in vital parts of the country, which, it seems to assume, would lead to the downfall of the Syrian president. The Guardian, always at the forefront in uncritically pumping anti-Assad propaganda, has already drawn attention to protests in As-Suwayda, a city close to the Jordanian border, in order to portray all criticism of the regime’s economic policy as calls for regime change. As Dareen Khalifa of the International Crisis Group told the LA Times, however, "many Syrians including loyalists are frustrated with Bashar [al-Assad], but that doesn’t mean they are capable or willing to challenge his rule." Syrian economist Aref Dalila concurred, saying that "when you weaken these people, you are weakening their ability to achieve change."

Indeed, these sanctions could not come at a worse possible time. Since the onset of the year, the Syrian economy has slipped into a free fall due to the combined effects of corruption, central bank policies, the coronavirus meltdown and the financial turmoil in Lebanon. These come on top of existing sanctions, astronomical wartime military expenditures and other consequences of the war that have resulted in a more than 600-fold inflation of the Syrian pound to the US dollar since 2011. On the black market, the exchange rate with the US dollar has jumped from 700 in the beginning of the year to a spectacular 3500 pounds. At a time when diplomatic normalization was lurking behind the corner and foreign investments started to flow into the country, however, the US government is putting the toughest sanctions yet on Syria. Of course, Washington claims that the sanctions are targeted in order to hold Assad and his backers accountable for alleged war crimes, but given the broad application it is difficult not to see them for what the Syrian government calls them – "economic terrorism." Indeed, according to Reuters, the new sanctions give Trump wider powers to freeze the assets of anyone dealing with Syria regardless of their nationality, are applicable to many more sectors ranging from construction to energy and additionally target those dealing with Iranian and Russian entities in Syria.

It is difficult to see how these wide applications will not cripple the overall economy even further. Take construction, for instance. The sanctions basically penalize foreign investors that want to share a piece of the pie in the reconstruction of the war-torn country. As an international sanctions expert told the LA Times, exemptions for humanitarian activities will do nothing to change that. "The issue isn’t immediate lifesaving or food programs, but rather things like rebuilding schools or houses, connecting them to the general water systems; areas where there is inevitably an aspect of reconstruction which may by its very nature involve the government," Justine Walker explained. "When you get to that point when the sanctions are so broad that it becomes very difficult to purchase olives or local produce from Syria, for example, then that clearly has an impact on the local market." In socialist economies like that of Syria, the government is involved economically in practically all sectors, so sanctions affect everyone in some way or another. Even though medical supplies are largely exempt from existing EU and US sanctions, for instance, they nevertheless resulted in restricted imports and shortages of cancer-saving medicines in 2017. In short, targeted sanctions are a myth.

Still counterproductive

Perhaps most crucially, the new sanctions freeze out neighboring countries allied to the US. Despite its own rollercoaster economy, Lebanese banks have been the go-to for save-guarding Syrian businessmen’s investment funds, and the two economies are tied together to a significant extent. Now, regional countries, such as Lebanon, Jordan but also the UAE, which has significantly normalized relations with Damascus in recent years, are now disincentivized from helping to reconstruct the country. This means that most reconstruction contracts will go to businessmen from Washington’s adversaries, like China, Russia and Iran. This will only embolden the drive towards opposing regional blocks that contest each other economically, politically and ideologically. Like before World War I or during the Cold War, that only increases the danger of military confrontation – or worse, total war – that would drag in global powers. Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hasan Nasrallah has already threatened the Lebanese government not to enforce the Caesar Act, reassuring that the regional "axis of resistance" will persevere and that "we will kill whoever puts us in the option between killing by arms or going hungry."

This is not a trivial point, for it provides a window into the heart of the fallacy: sanctions are counterproductive. A survey of all modern sanctions up to 1994 shows that a mere 5% were successful in effecting political change. In the vast majority of cases do sanctions not only not work and hurt the people the policy seeks to protect, it drives them closer to the target authority. Robert Pape, the author of the survey, points out that "even in the weakest and most fractured states, external pressure is more likely to enhance the nationalist legitimacy of the rules than to undermine it." He cites Iraq as an example. In the 1990s, UN and US sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime eliminated 48% of Iraq’s GNP, which according to UN estimates resulted in the death of more than half a million children under age five. While then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright infamously responded that "the price is worth it," the regime did not buckle, and it took an illegal and destructive invasion to remove Hussein from power, only to be replaced by other brutal and corrupt authorities.

Similarly, there is an argument to be made that the interventionism of NATO governments and their regional allies from the very beginning of the conflict have driven Syrians into two opposing camps. Either you are with the hardcore Islamist insurgents propped up with training, armaments, finances and political support primarily from Turkey, Jordan and the Gulf countries and secondarily from their NATO allies and Israel; or you are with the government and their allies Hezbollah, Iran and Russia. I am reminded of a Syrian girl whom I met in Beirut who told me that she reluctantly supported the military despite the fact that her father had in past times been tortured by the regime. If al-Qaeda-linked groups took over Damascus, where she lived, life would simply be unbearable. Having heard testimony of the horrific life under the "moderate rebels" in the Damascene suburbs of East Ghouta first hand, that point is not difficult to understand. Meanwhile, people that try to walk the ever-diminishing middle ground – the middle classes that can effect true change – are alienated. Last Sunday, a group of Syrian-Americans demonstrated in Allentown, Pennsylvania. "When you try to destroy the economy of a country, it affects its people," one demonstrator explained. "It’s a contradiction if the main purpose of the Caesar Act is to protect civilians. It’s our homeland, and seeing it collapse like that is just devastating. We cannot stand by."

Bas Spliet is a master student History and Arabic Studies at the University of Ghent, Belgium, where he researches the anti-nuclear weapons movement in Europe of the early 1980s. He is proficient in Arabic, travelled to Syria in 2018 and lived in Cairo in 2019. He aspires to become an investigative journalist after graduation. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @BSpliet.