Four pillars of Caesar Act determine scope of its impact

Caesar Photo Gallery at the United Nations (Le Monde)

Caesar Photo Gallery at the United Nations (Le Monde)


Enab Baladi – Hiba Shehadeh | After waiting for four years, the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act will be referred for the first time to the US Congress Senate, to be soon approved, according to the estimations of the followers and supporters of this Act who called for it and promoted its importance, and despite the escalation of other voices doubting its usefulness and warning of its potential danger to the Syrian people.

The defected Syrian officer, known as “Caesar,” entrusted the US government with 55,000 photos of 11,000 detainees who were killed in Syrian regime prisons under torture. He testified four times before the US House of Representatives, after the FBI confirmed that his photos were true, demanding that the violations committed in the Syrian cells be stopped.

However, his photos, which roamed the world and caused shock and anger, have not yet succeeded in generating a realistic action by the US government against the Syrian regime, except when passing what has been known as the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act three times from the House of Representatives without having time to be discussed in the Senate, amid giving priority to accumulated laws in the US, so far.

The Syrian-American organizations supporting the Act worked to deliver it to the Senate this year by including it with another law, the National Defense Authorization Act, which is considered to make a “guaranteed” success, as stated Muna Jundi, a lawyer from Americans for a Free Syria, to Enab Baladi.

“Caesar” cried tears of joy and optimism when he heard about the news, because “after more than eight years, the victims of al-Assad’s brutality and their families are one step closer to justice and accountability,” he said, speaking to The Washington Post.

Four pillars of the Act

The Caesar Act is a sanctions law. Although it is not the first, with the United States and the European Union imposing various packages of sanctions on the Syrian regime, including those approved before and after the start of the popular protests in 2011, this law is considered one of the “most important” laws, for many reasons:

Deterrence factor

In its first item, the law targets the sources of funds that provide support to the Syrian regime, and includes imposing sanctions on foreigners involved in financial or technical transactions with Syrian government institutions, and those implicated in the assistance in the reformation or the expansion of Syria’s domestic production of gas and oil or its derivatives. It also imposes sanctions on military contractors and mercenaries who are fighting for the Syrian government, Russia, Iran, or any of the parties against which sanctions have been previously imposed.

According to Ayman Abdel Nour, the head of Syrian Christians for Peace Association, which contributed to supporting the law and bringing it to its final stages, these sanctions will close all the outlets that the Syrian regime has long used to circumvent the previous sanctions, and will prevent it from continuing its “war on the Syrian people.”

With the “wide” scope of its sanctions, which will include the governmental institutions of any country providing support to the Syrian regime, including Russia and Iran, and all the militias fighting with its forces, and will stand in the face of private institutions and companies seeking to contribute in the “reconstruction” process, these sanctions will lead to “weakening the Syrian regime and paralyzing its economy,” said Abdel Nour to Enab Baladi.

In turn, the director of the Syria Justice & Accountability Center, Mohammad al-Abdullah, considered in an interview with Enab Baladi, that these sanctions would represent a “deterrent factor against the work with the regime.” He also highlighted “their importance” in this period, during which the Syrian regime is trying to obtain funding for the “reconstruction” process, in an attempt to promote “its victory” and “the end of the war.”

“Prompt” punishment against perpetrators

In its second item, the law imposes sanctions on those responsible for human rights violations against civilians or members of their families. It also identifies a group of personalities proposed to be included in the sanctions, mainly the president of the Syrian regime, the prime minister, and his deputy in Syria.

The sanctions further include the Council of Ministers, the Head of the Land, Naval, and Intelligence forces, officials of the Ministry of the Interior from the Political Security, Intelligence and Police Department, commanders and deputy commanders of the Fourth Division of the Syrian Armed Forces, the commander of the Syrian Republican Guard, the advisor to the Strategic Affairs of the Syrian President, as well as the Head and Deputy Head of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, in addition to officials of prisons controlled by the Syrian government, governors and heads of security branches in the 14 governorates in Syria who are appointed by the Syrian president.

The Caesar Act has the advantage that it does not require the “long” legal measures that previous sanctions needed, according to the Head of Syrian Christians for Peace Association. Abdel Nour also pointed out that these procedures required five to six months of dealings and reviews by legal professionals and lawyers in the USA.

He added that, according to the text of the Act, it is sufficient to prove the participation of a person or company in any effort or activity that violates human rights or contributes to torturing or attacking civilians, in order for them to be placed on the sanctions list.

According to the Director of the Syria Justice & Accountability Center, Mohammad al-Abdullah, the lowering of the ceiling of the required evidence represents a “positive and negative point at the same time,” as it provides “disturbing” powers for the US Treasury.

Protecting civilians and documenting “war crimes”

The Syrians’ assistance clause includes supporting current assistance programs and evaluating possible ways to improve the protection of civilians. This requires reports from several US agencies, which means military and non-military methods to protect civilians who were subjected to bombings, stranded at borders or who are displaced.

It provides assistance to support entities that collect evidence for investigators on war crimes and crimes against humanity that have been occurring in Syria since March 2011. It also includes support for NGOs and their licensed activities, and the development of a strategy to facilitate the provision of humanitarian assistance, without allocating specific additional expenses related to the Act.

Lifting of sanctions subject to change of regime’s behavior

Item 4 says that only the US president can lift the sanctions, when the Syrian government takes “realistic” steps towards guaranteeing human rights, including ending the bombing, releasing the detainees and allowing the safe and voluntary return of Syrian refugees.

Mohammad al-Abdullah said that this is “unprecedented” in sanction laws, because it sets conditions related to the field of human rights for the sanctions to be lifted, as there were no previous laws related to the release of detainees or the setting of a political solution.

However, al-Abdullah doubted the possibility of these sanctions’ success, citing the failure of the sanctions to change the behavior of the regimes of North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Iraq, and Libya in the past. He also pointed to the need to “monitor” their impact, even in case the regime blames them, as expected, for the economic situation the people will witness, in order to assess their advantages and disadvantages.

The “impossible” justice equation

According to al-Abdullah, the Syrian people will “indirectly” be affected by the impact of the US sanctions, but their lifting will lead to an “indirect recovery” of the Syrian regime, so there is no solution to the “impossible” sanctions equation.

While the sanctions are subject to political considerations, especially the United States’ turning away from the Syrian file and not possessing the alternative means and tools to pressure the regime, they are “not a substitute for justice measures,” including trials, investigation committees, compensation programs, and reformation of the security services, according to the Director of the Syria Justice & Accountability Center.

Sanctions will not bring “justice” to anyone, as they had not in the past, and their role is limited to pressuring the regime and its supporting governments to change their behavior, which al-Abdullah excludes, citing the Syrian regime’s behavior during the past nine years.

However, Muna Jundi, the lawyer, member of the Constitutional Committee from the civil society list, and member of the Political Committee of Americans for a Free Syria, said in an interview with Enab Baladi that the importance of the Act is that it is “a tool of pressure and an advantage” to compel the Syrian regime and its allies to cooperate during the recent political track, as non-governmental actors within the Committee in the past lacked the means and tools that might lead it to “real negotiations.”

Journey of Caesar Act

The Caesar Act, related to imposing sanctions on the Syrian regime, reached the stage of voting in the Senate on December 7, for the first time since it was introduced three years ago.

The Act was included with the US Department of Defense’s Budget and Finance Act, which enjoys a unanimous consent by leaders from both the Republican and Democrat parties, making the chances of its approval next week almost “certain.”

The Caesar Act, named after the dissident Syrian officer, who leaked 55,000 photos in 2014 of 11,000 detainees killed under torture in regime prisons, was passed in the US House of Representatives twice in the past, in 2016 and 2017, and again this year. However, it did not reach the Senate amid the accumulated American laws chosen for debate every year.

Bills are presented in the Congress through the House of Representatives, and then transferred to the Senate, where the majority leader, currently Senator Mitch McConnell, has to arrange the laws to put them up for debate in the House.

Because there is a large number of presented laws, the majority leader selects the most urgent ones according to a certain priority, and returns the rest to the Congress to be passed in the next year’s session, which has so far happened twice with the Caesar Act.

The Syrian-American organizations supporting the law have worked to deliver it this year to the Senate by including it with another law: The National Defense Authorization Law. This law is related to the budget of the American Ministry of Defense and is considered the “guaranteed” law agreed upon by members of the Council every year, for more than 50 years.

Nothing is left now, except for presenting this Act for the Senate vote, with a high probability of passing it, as organizations continue to persuade members to vote in its favor.


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