Can Jordan lead efforts to ease Caesar Act sanctions against Syrian regime?

King of Jordan Abdullah II and the head of the Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad (edited by Enab Baladi)

King of Jordan Abdullah II and the head of the Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad (edited by Enab Baladi)

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Enab Baladi – Diana Rahima

The Syrian-Jordanian relations underwent changes after the eruption of popular uprisings against the Syrian regime. In 2011, King Abdullah II of Jordan called on Bashar al-Assad to step down from the presidency, and in 2021, he reduced his position to demanding al-Assad’s regime to change its behavior. 

Last July, the Jordanian king made a visit to Washington to meet with the United States president Joe Biden. In this visit, Abdullah made comments about a more mature way of thinking about how to deal with the Syrian regime and the need for the regime to change its behavior in return.

The comments caused controversy regarding Jordan’s altered foreign policy with the regime manifested clearly by demanding the regime to amend its behavior instead of calling al-Assad to quit his office after being responsible for war crimes against the Syrian people under international acknowledgment.   

Abdullah’s visit to the United States (US) and his statements on the Syrian regime were followed by a phone call between Syrian Minister of the Interior Mohammed al-Rahmoun and his Jordanian counterpart Mazen al-Faraya. The phone call was the first of its kind on the level of ministers between the two countries in years.  

The two ministers agreed to achieve joint coordination to facilitate the passage of trucks and passenger buses between Syria and Jordan.

Spokesman of the Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC) Yahya al-Aridi told Enab Baladi that what King Abdullah said about the regime’s need to change its behavior does not mean that he wants al-Assad to stay in office. 

In an interview with US channel CNN, King Abdullah said, “The regime is there, so we have to be mature in our thinking. Are we talking about regime change or behavioral change?”  

The Jordanian kind added, “If the answer is behavioral change, then what do we do to come together to talk with the regime because everybody else is doing it, but there is no plan at the moment.” 

Commenting on the phone call between the Syrian and Jordanian interior ministers, al-Aridi said the call indicates that security matters have not been interrupted between the two countries and does not necessarily mean rapprochement between them.   

Last June, Ammon News Agency cited Jordanian sources saying that the Caesar Act sanctions matter is one of the issues on the discussion agenda between King Abdullah and Biden, on the grounds that the Jordanian economy is the second most affected economy by these sanctions after the Syrian economy.   

A study for the Middle East Institute published on 16 July mentioned that “King Abdullah will probably ask President Biden to find ways to exempt the kingdom from penalties under the Caesar Act regarding trading with Syria.”

Suspension of Caesar Act sanctions is bound by regime’s behavior

The coordinator of the Caesar Act Committee in the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), Abdul Rahman Barakat, told Enab Baladi that the Caesar Act provisions do not state any exemptions from penalties, whether for countries or public figures. The Act named targeted bodies very clearly as foreign figures who deal with the regime on all levels, whether economic, military, or even in the technology services sector, arms selling, or reconstruction.

Regarding suspension and exemption from penalties, the Caesar Act presented articles discussing changes in the regime’s behavior at the political, military, and security levels as a prerequisite to cancel sanctions. Such changes include the cessation of air force use against civilians, lifting the siege on condoned civilians, and exerting serious efforts in the political process.

Barakat added that the Caesar Act suspension and exemption of sanctions are only related to the regime and the extent to which the regime’s behavior has been altered under the Act’s penalties at the political, economic, military, and security levels.  

Section 402 of the Caesar Act includes articles on waivers and exemptions of activities and transactions from sanctions authorized under this Act or any amendment made by this Act. The exemptions clearly mention authorized activities of the US government under the approval of the US president.

Such exemptions are related to the issuing party of the Act, Barakat said. 

Other exemptions include any transactions necessary to comply with United States obligations under signed agreements with the United Nations, consular conventions, and any other international agreement to which the US is a party.

There are also apparent exceptions and waivers in transactions of humanitarian aspects for the delivery of food and medical assistance to Syria.

The Caesar Act gave extensive powers to the US president to brief appropriate congressional committees on the subject of waivers, exemptions, and suspension of the Act’s sanctions against individuals or countries dealing with the Syrian regime, outside the provisions of the Act and for political aims mainly.

The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, also known as the Caesar Act, is a US legislation imposing sanctions on officials belonging to and supporting the regime and prohibits economic support or cooperation with the regime since 16 June 2020.

A gas deal to convince Washington to ease sanctions on Syrian regime

Saad al-Hariri, the former prime minister-designate in Lebanon, announced that his last visit to Egypt on 14 July and meeting with Egyptian President Abdu Fattah al-Sisi sought to import Egyptian gas through Jordan and Syria to Lebanon to save 50-60 percent of the cost.

Al-Hariri said that he reached the Jordanian leadership to send a message to Washington that Lebanon seeks Egyptian gas through Jordan and Syria.

Al-Hariri did not specify the implementation mechanism and feasibility of the gas project despite the Egyptian positive response.

He also did not clarify whether he had agreed with the Syrian regime or not before requesting Jordanian mediation.

Al-Hariri’s visit and talk about using Syria as a transit point for importing Egyptian gas to Lebanon were preceded by the Syrian Minister of Oil and Mineral Resources Bassam Toumeh’s visit to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad on 29 April. 

On 29 April, the Iraqi Minister of Oil Ihsan Abdul Jabbar met with his Syrian counterpart Bassam Toumeh and discussed an imminent agreement to import Egyptian gas to Iraq through Syria, the Iraqi News Agency reported.  

The agency, however, did not mention further details on the nature of the agreement or the implementation’s conditions and timing.

Can Jordan take the mediator role between Washington and Syrian regime?

The Iraqi expert and researcher in international relations, Dr. Omar Abdul Sattar, told Enab Baladi that the Jordanian king is not likely to succeed in easing sanctions on the regime and that accomplishing this mission would be a miracle. This is because the US Congress passed the Caesar Act, and its sanctions resemble those issued by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) against Iraq under section VII of the Act, which were not lifted until 2003.   

According to Abdul Sattar, Syria, being a war arena, is connected to all Middle East’s conflicts and challenges; therefore, the Caesar Act sanctions cannot be lifted. Moreover, Jordan needs Syria on the economic and security levels and is trying to adapt to the possibility of Us forces’ indirect withdrawal from Syria, especially with Iran’s desire to build a new axis called the “New Sham” by Abdul Sattar. 

The latest normalization of relations with Israel by some Arab countries has led Iran to unprecedented diplomatic efforts led by the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who headed a trilateral summit in Baghdad in June with King Abdullah and Egyptian President al-Sisi to discuss political and economic relations between these countries.

Analysts viewed this summit as an attempt from Iran to join Jordan and Egypt to its axis against Israel.  

Abdul Sattar added that Biden has his focus on Jordan because King Abdullah is regarded as the US ambassador to the Middle East region. Abdullah and Biden’s meeting in Washington was historical as the US is engaged in cold war with China and the western world remains preoccupied with the Iranian issue.  

The easing of the Caesar Act sanctions on the regime under Jordanian efforts is unpredictable unless Jordan and the US reach an official agreement. Meanwhile, Abdul Sattar said that the economic, political, and security coordination between Jordan, the regime, Russia, and Israel is necessary to protect Jordan against Iran’s interests.

Nassib-Jaber border crossing out of Syrian regime’s political considerations

Whenever there is talk of a Jordanian-Syrian rapprochement, the focus is shifted to the Nassib-Jaber border crossing considered the base for commercial trading between the two countries and other countries, including Lebanon, Iraq, and the Arab Gulf States. 

On 31 July, the official Jordan News Agency (Petra) reported that the Jordanian Ministry of Interior temporarily closed the Nassib-Jaber crossing with Syria to the movement of goods and passengers, following security developments in Daraa. The Ministry announced that the crossing would reopen again under appropriate conditions.

Jordanian exports were affected by the closure of the crossing, and a delegation from the Jordanian Chamber of Commerce visited Damascus on 23 July to discuss the expansion of bilateral trade between the two countries.

Syrian exports through the Nassib-Jaber crossing during 2010 were estimated at over 35 billion Syrian pounds, while imports amounted to nearly 47 billion Syrian pounds (1 USD = 50 SYP).

The volume of Syrian exports through the Nassib-Jaber crossing during 2014 and until the closure date of the crossing at the end of March 2015 reached over 27 billion Syrian pounds, while the imports amounted to 78 billion Syrian pounds (1 USD = 150 SYP).

The Syrian-Jordanian borders were partially reopened in 2018, allowing trade and export movement between the two countries to be revitalized after a commercial activity halt for more than three years following opposition factions’ control of the region.

In a previous talk with Enab Baladi, Abdul Hakim al-Masri, Minister of Finance and Economy of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), said that the Syrian regime is not counting on any economic gains achieved by the ongoing commercial transactions through the Nassib-Jaber crossing. The Syrian regime intends to use the crossing for financial gains. 

The Syrian regime wants to use the crossing as a means of carrying out drug smuggling deals in secret with other countries. In addition, the regime seeks to rebuild its legitimacy and score political gains via the normalization of relations with neighboring countries. 

In an investigation published by Enab Baladi on the drug trade in southern Syria, drug quantities entering Jordan through Syrian borders were estimated as amounting to 40 tons of hashish and over 83 million Captagon pills.

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