"Caesar" is the alias of a former soldier and forensic medicine photographer, based in Damascus.
His mission before the 2011 revolution was primarily to document criminal incidents relating to the army and broader military establishment, including murders. He later was given the task of visiting military hospitals in Damascus, the Syrian capital, to photograph the bodies of detainees who died in regime custody. Caesar managed to secretly copy around 55,000 images that now constitute the largest body of incriminating evidence against the Assad regime.
The global community was shocked by the photographs of dead detainees, many of whom were almost skeletal due to the starvation, torture, and other severe violence they had endured prior to or during their deaths. The tragedy was even greater for the families of the victims, who still recognized their loved ones through these images despite their disfigurement.
Syrian-led activist groups and international organizations in Europe and the United States began sharing the horrifying images a year after Caesar's defection. The photos even reached the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), who analysed the photographs and confirmed their authenticity. This coincided with Caesar testifying before the US Congress and the initial drafting of the “Caesar Act.” However, the Obama Administration did not take action at the time, citing concerns about disrupting political efforts aimed at ending the Syrian conflict.
The law was passed in the US House of Representatives in 2017 but was voted down in the Senate. This was reversed the following year when the Senate passed the law while the House opposed it as part of a package of bills that targeted companies boycotting Israel. Another House bill that same year failed to pass due to opposition from Senator Rand Paul.
This catalysed the Syrian opposition lobby within the United States, including organisations such as the Syrian American Council. Their efforts were focused towards crafting legislation and giving presentations to Congress. They also sought the advice of Congressional representatives, Senators, and legal experts. The solution to the gridlock was found in linking the Caesar Act to the yearly defence budget, which had a distinct advantage in the form of an autonomous legislative proposal. This bureaucratic manoeuvre enabled the law to align with broader budgetary deliberations and guaranteed the endorsement of a two-thirds majority in the Senate.
Congress passed the bill on December 11, 2019 and the Senate approved it on the 17th of the same month before President Trump signed it on the 20th. The US stance toward the Assad regime was then codified into law, which came into effect on June 17, 2020.
The Caesar Act imposes economic and legal sanctions on 39 Syrian individuals involved with the Syrian regime, including Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma al-Assad. The law also applies sanctions to any non-Syrian person who cooperate with the Syrian regime on its military or civilian projects, or who provide it with any form of support. It specifically targets Iran, Russia, and China for their collaboration. The sanctions include the possible seizure of any properties within US territories owned by these individuals or anyone collaborating with them. It also involves a ban against their entry to the US. Moreover, individuals are prohibited from collaborating with companies or entities that contribute to funding the war in Syria.
The law exempts non-governmental organizations providing assistance in Syria. Imports of food and medicine is not covered by the law. The US Treasury has confirmed that exporting food and most medications to Syria is not prohibited. However, exporting these items requires a licence from the Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) or the Office of Foreign Assets Control.
This means that non-US individuals will not be subject to the Caesar Act for engaging in activities to support civilians in Syria. Despite the law's stern tone, it leaves a lot of room for a political solution, allowing the US President to lift sanctions if there is a genuine and meaningful effort on the part of the Syrian regime when it comes to negotiations.
The law outlines conditions for its cessation, including:
1. Ending Russian and Syrian bombardment of civilians.
2. Preventing Syrian, Russian, Iranian forces, and their associated entities from obstructing humanitarian aid to besieged areas.
3. Halting the bombing of medical facilities and gathering spots, such as local markets.
4. Releasing all political prisoners and allowing human rights organizations access to prisons and detention centers.
5. Facilitating the dignified return of Syrians.
6. Holding criminals in the Syrian regime accountable and delivering justice to the victims.
The Syrian regime and its allies are required to fulfil these demands within a timeframe of no more than five years, which would be in 2024, in order for economic sanctions to be lifted.
Syrian state-sponsored media has consistently depicted the Caesar law as a tool to starve the Syrian people and weaken the state. Media platforms and propagandists aligned with the Syrian regime have repeatedly claimed that the law will be responsible for shortages in essential goods, as well as subsequent price hikes and a greater erosion of purchasing power. The Syrian regime’s cheerleaders have also assigned blame for the decline in employment opportunities to the Caesar Act, pursuant to their claim that it is responsible for curtailing the ability of the state to import goods, including food and fuel.
Notably, upon reading the provisions of the Caesar Act, it is apparent that the law encompasses sanctions which target specific individuals within the Syrian regime. However, the imports of food and medicine are categorically not targeted as previously explained. Humanitarian aid, which has not been affected by the law, is also exempt.
Despite oil-related provisions in the Caesar law and the ban on cooperation with the Syrian regime in the energy and oil sectors, the US government has turned a blind eye to oil smuggling operations conducted by its allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to the Syrian regime. The Syrian Network for Human Rights revealed in a report that the SDF have violated the Caesar Act by supplying the Syrian regime with approximately 6 million barrels of oil and gas annually, totaling around $120 million in revenue. The report noted that the SDF seek to curb smuggling operations via water crossings, while at the same time turning a blind eye to smuggling and sales operations conducted on land. This is due to the fact that land-sales allow the SDF to reap substantial monetary profits. They sell the oil directly to companies responsible for its transportation, such as the Qatirji company, which supports the Syrian regime. In contrast, oil transported through water crossings is sold directly to the local population, who handle its transportation to areas under the Syrian regime's control.
Iran has also continued to supply the Assad regime and Hezbollah with oil shipments valued at millions of dollars and the Biden Administration has chosen to overlook this, ignoring the blatant violation of the Caesar Act.
The Syrian regime's propaganda linking poverty in the country to the sanctions imposed by the Casear Act is a deliberate form of deception. We can easily expose the falsehoods of this propaganda by looking at the Syrian economy before the enactment of the Caesar Act. The poverty rate in the country was already at 80% before the law was passed in 2019.
The claim that the Syrian regime was capable of providing all the necessities of life to citizens in the areas under its control is an unabashed lie. Syrians are well aware of how the regime prioritised funding its war machine against the Syrian people over the provision of aid to civilians. Furthermore, the regime has a notorious record of looting the Syrian people's funds for the benefit of the Assad family’s personal wealth, as well as that of its cronies.
The narrative of the regime fell apart when the US announced temporary sanction relief, making it much easier for all forms of aid to be provided to the Syrian people for 180 days following the destructive earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria and left thousands dead, injured, and displaced.
The Assad regime did not hesitate to steal the aid provided to it during this period, leaving the Syrian people to face the catastrophe on their own. The economic situation has since become much harsher for Syrians inside the country. During this period, inflation has escalated, the currency has plummeted further, and there is a severe shortage of fuel in areas under regime control. The Syrian economy has now reached its lowest level in 12 years.
Life in Damascus has come to a standstill. The streets are nearly devoid of cars, and homes receive a few hours of electricity a day at best. The cost of food and other necessities has increased significantly.
It would be ludicrous to deny that sanctions have an effect on the lives of Syrians. That being said, it is important to recognize that the current dire situation is a result of the Syrian regime’s policies, its embezzlement of funds, and its funding of a war machine to slaughter the Syrian population.
We are talking about a regime that has been under sanctions for a long time. It now has mechanisms in place to avoid them, limiting their actual impact. The mechanisms followed by the regime and those in power exploit loopholes in legitimate instruments of international law to serve their interests, such as dummy companies, shell corporations, and collaboration with legal and accounting professionals capable of falsifying official documents.
What's even more astonishing is the unwavering determination of those who endorse Bashar al-Assad's propaganda, as they vehemently criticise the sanctions levied against him, yet refrain from holding him accountable or urging him to fulfil the conditions stipulated by the Caesar Act for the alleviation of these sanctions. It's almost as if they are oblivious to the sight of victims' remains or remain uninformed about the heinous acts perpetrated by the regime against the Syrian populace over the last 12 years. The Syrian regime cannot evade accountability, even if the sanctions fall short of effecting its downfall. This is especially pertinent considering that several countries have undertaken measures to normalize their relations with a regime that laid waste to cities and perpetrated crimes against humanity. Hence, it is imperative that this regime faces sanctions within the framework of U.S. law.
Such action would, at the very least, provide a semblance of truth and justice.