Et Tu Caesar – Unending Plight of Syria!
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

“Et tu Brutus” has been synonymous with perfidy. But on June 17 when the USA invoked its “Caesar Act” against Syria and its embattled President Assad, pursuant to the geo-political games, Assad would have closed the caption by accusing Caesar - his current nemesis in the form of a chasing and chastising hyper power. For nearly a decade due to foreign interventions and lack of foresight on the part of its leaders Syria’s socio-economic fabric has been sundered apart. US, Turkey, Russia and Iran and scores of militias and radical groups including ISIS (Daesh) continue to contribute to Syria’s plight. Millions of refugees and Internally Displaced Persons have not only become destitute themselves but have impacted the socio-economic landscape of the countries like Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon hosting them who are facing their own economic challenges in this unstable and violent region.

For a short while it appeared that there may be some sense of stability and move forward for resolution and reconciliation among the stake holders but that was belied even before that once prosperous and civilisational country in the Middle East could even see the first rays of turn around. On the contrary the Syrian fighters were being deployed as mercenaries in other conflict theatres like Libya. Of course, after the removal of Gadhafi a number of Libyans were sent to support and fight the Free Syrian Army by the western coalition. Even the ISIS under pressure found refuge back in Libya. The corrupt dynamic continues and none is sacrosanct in this game.

Sanctions under the “Caesar Act” will further cripple the systemic failures and could lead to disintegration and dissatisfaction with increased conflict in the country. They will impact the zones of influences in a variable manner. US itself is embedded in Kurdish-controlled areas and East of Euphrates where produce may even be transacted in US dollars; Turkey, worried by the Kurdish inflection controls an area where it finds several radical groups and has agreed to a buffer zone with the Russians; Iran ofcourse has been very active through its revolutionary guards and militias as well as Hezbollah in the western part of Damascus outskirts and Southern Aleppo where its supporting groups are located. It aims to ensure access to the Mediterranean through an unimpeded Tehran- Beirut corridor.

China looks at it from its BRI (Belt & Road Initiative) perspective. US obviously wants to contain the Russian and Chinese intent and Iranian access even if both Russia and Iran were crucial in defeating the ISIS in the region. No wonder Russia and China called the new sanctions “Illegitimate” and at the UNSC meeting urged the US to lift these unilateral coercive measures that are even impacting the humanitarian assistance more so during the Corona pandemic.

However, with Russia’s intervention in 2015, in support of about to fall government of President Bashar Assad, the ground situation considerably changed since then despite increasing geo-political competition. Russia had a strategic interest advancing its Eurasian project and a vital Tartus port In Syria that provided access to all weather ports. It has decisively changed the course of events in favour of Assad at least until now. Most countries have come to regard the stability of Assad regime in the short term including by Russia that has become much stronger and regained its influence and negotiating advantage in this criss-crossing competitive landscape. It started the Astana Peace process in addition to the Geneva Talks. It worked out the Idlib agreement with the Turks and continues to discuss Syria with US and its ally Iran with whom it remains a constant challenged. On the face of it, everyone seems to want to protect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Syrian Arab Republic but only when it falls under their tutelage or strategic influence. Hence the competition for increased influence will continue to play out to the detriment of fated hapless Syrians.

The Caesar Act seeks to further cripple the devastated Syrian economy and any possible investments as part of reconstruction efforts. Several Gulf countries including UAE, which had reopened its embassy in Damascus last year, have been scouting for the opportunities in rebuilding Syria whose strategic importance including its M4 and M5 highways and ports cannot be underestimated. However, the new sanctions will target any country that does business with Syrian regime and seems to specifically target the Russians and Iranians who are already under US sanctions.

Washington had already banned US exports and investments in Syria especially in hydrocarbons sector transactions by Americans. EU sanctions are also in place. New sanctions will scuttle any efforts for investments and reconstruction especially, Russia, Iran, China, Turkey and the Gulf countries placing a tremendous burden and hardship on the common Syrian people.

Although there is some provision that these sanctions could be lifted if the Assad regime stops bombing civilians (as if they are the only ones doing it), releases thousands of detainees and ensures dignified return of refugees safely. Lebanon and Jordan that provide business corridors and who have their own economic challenges while hosting Syrian refugees for years will be further hit hard economically. Logical question will be as to how an economically bereft outfit could even attempt to meet the six difficult demands under such stressful conditions unless it fully compromises on its own dignity and whatever little independence of action is left at its disposal.

On the other hand, given the terrible corruption and dire economic condition prevailing in Syria and to possibly secure family’s fortunes, President Assad sought to publicly side-line his billionaire cousin Rami Makhlouf, who owns Syriatel and several other major ventures apart from the Al Bustan charity. His estimated wealth is close to $ 13bn and he lives in Dubai. He has been a big financial supporter of Assad for years. This also indicates that new economic players and war profiteers, like Samer Foz said to be closer to the regime, are emerging to partake in the ever-shrinking pie. As such eighty percent of the population lives below poverty line and the Syrian pound has been devalued from 50 to 1800 per dollar. The Caesar Act covers the President and his wife (for the first time) along with 37 other military and business leaders and will even impact those doing business with them.

As President Assad completes his 20 years at the helm of affairs his problems have increased proportionately during the past decade. US, although militarily is withdrawing from the region, uses its unparalleled economic and financial clout by way of unilateral sanctions to constrict the ability of any regime to move freely or act independently. That’s the essence of the Real Politick that will make ordinary Syrians suffer more during the Covid-19 crisis even if the regime may be able to weather the storm. Will the political transition of power become imminent remains to be seen!

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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