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The US Caesar Act is four years too late

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad attends the Arab Summit, 28 March 2007 in Riyadh. Arab leaders kicked off a two-day summit in Saudi Arabia today aiming to revive a dormant plan for peace with Israel and launch a diplomatic offensive to resolve the Middle East conflict [HASSAN AMMAR/AFP via Getty Images]
Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad attends the Arab Summit, 28 March 2007 in Riyadh. [HASSAN AMMAR/AFP via Getty Images]

Nobody — not the killer Bashar Al-Assad and his supporters; not the Iranians; and not the Russians — could have ever expected that an unknown person would come from the heart of the Assad regime to turn the tables on all of them. The unknown individual was a Syrian military photographer, who we now know as “Caesar”. Appalled by the criminal regime’s brutality that he witnessed, he defected with more than 55,000 photographs taken in Assad’s prisons and detention centres using his only weapon, his camera.

We all saw with our own eyes the crimes and massacres committed by the fascist Syrian regime, but did nothing. This hero and his photographs shocked the conscience of the international community. His images included 11,000 of prisoners killed under torture by Assad’s thugs between 2011 and 2014.

Caesar’s pictures were exhibited at the EU in Brussels as well as the US Congress, before which he presented his testimony. International human rights organisations called for investigations; Human Rights Watch even demanded that the criminal Syrian regime should be prosecuted. The HRW report — “If the dead could speak” — provided photographic evidence and Caesar’s testimony. The organisation even presented this evidence at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and in the UN, but it was ignored, even though the US knew that it was just the tip of the iceberg of the Assad regime’s crimes.

The main reason for Washington ignoring these crimes is that Assad and his cronies are trusted to guard Israel’s border. Another reason is the claim that Assad is fighting terrorism; this narrative is promoted internationally, with the regime fighting Daesh in Syria on behalf of a grateful world, rather than fighting ordinary Syrian citizens who demand freedom, dignity and justice.

READ: The US Caesar sanctions are a punishment not a solution for Syria

With Caesar’s testimony and photographs, the US found itself in a dilemma; it could not simply turn a blind eye to the Syrian regime’s crimes now exposed to the whole world. To do so would lead to accusations of collusion with the regime and complicity in its crimes against the people of Syria.

Given that the US promotes itself as a champion of human rights, it had to do something. Step forward the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which sat in a drawer somewhere deep inside Congress for over four years before it was finally passed into law last year. It comes into effect this week; probably, I believe, to save America’s face in Syria rather than to save the country’s citizens. They have endured barrel bombs, missiles and internationally-banned munitions. The regime’s allies in the slaughter and displacement of tens of thousands of civilians include Russia and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Shia militias such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and the Iraqi and Afghan militias under Tehran’s control. Nor was the Caesar Act passed for the sake of the thousands killed and maimed in Syria’s torture chambers.

The US legislation is four years too late, though; the international community, represented by the UN Security Council, has been AWOL for nine years; and the regime, the Russians and the Iranians have carried out heinous crimes against the people of Syria. Broadly speaking, the world has stayed silent on the issue, despite the war crimes of a magnitude to match those of the past. Not a single Security Council resolution has been passed; the use of their veto by Russia and China has allowed the Assad regime to intensify its brutality. If the Security Council had passed just one resolution to protect civilians, it could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives and prevented the displacement of millions of Syrian citizens.

Now that the regime has been allowed to crush the revolution, there is no longer any tangible activity on the ground, except for some clashes here or there; so the US has implemented the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which no longer has any real value or meaning. Unfortunately, it is four years too late. Perhaps this delay was deliberate to allow time to rearrange everyone’s position in Syria after thwarting the revolution and curbing the roles of Russia and Iran. Their roles were determined by the biggest player in the game, and if it hadn’t given the green light, then neither country would have set foot in Syria.

The Caesar Act imposes economic sanctions on the pillars of the Assad regime and its Iranian and Russian supporters and every person, entity, or country that deals with it. These sanctions are the highest level of involvement other than direct intervention, to which the Assad regime may be exposed. While the Act is directed mainly at the regime, it crosses borders and does not exclude anyone, even friendly countries such as the UAE. It also places Russia and Iran face to face with US sanctions, which is what Washington was aiming for.

Under the Caesar Act, Russian institutions are subject to sanctions, including the armed forces and senior officers, as well as arms manufacturers, businesses, private military contractors and the energy industry, all of which may fall prey to the legislation. Hence, Russia’s delegate to the UN Security Council attacked the Act strongly, saying that sanctions will be unlawful because the US has no right to impose them on other countries unilaterally. In any case, Moscow pointed out, the Act may target the regime in Damascus, but it will end up hurting ordinary citizens.

READ: US threatens UAE with Caesar Act, due to support for Assad regime

Iran has understood from the start that it is the main target of this law in order to limit its strategic influence inside Syria. America and the Mullahs in charge have never got on. The effects of the law extend to Iranian proxies, especially Lebanon’s Hezbollah. This is why Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif broke his country’s pandemic lockdown over the past four months to fly to Syria, Turkey and Russia in an effort to deter the American legislation.

One of the main demands made by Washington to pull the plug on the Caesar Act is for Iran to withdraw from Syria, which puts Tehran in a difficult position. It is not about to leave Syria after it has gained an important strategic outlet on the Mediterranean coast through which it can be a major regional power. Moreover, it has spent over $30 billion in Syria to save Assad, and it has relied on direct investments and participation in the reconstruction of the country in order to compensate it and grant it even more gains. The Caesar sanctions are preventing Tehran from reaping the rewards of its victory.

Whatever America’s intentions and objectives are, or how serious President Donald Trump is about implementing the Caesar Act so close to the presidential election, I believe that he will use it to support his position and boost his chances of winning in November’s poll. The legislation will close many doors to the fascist Assad regime and open new windows of hope, through which the sun could soon shine to purify Syria of Assad and his regime, as well as Iran and its proxies.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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