Caesar: The sanctions doctrine and US foreign policy

The Caesar Act came into effect on Wednesday and has struck 39 individuals so far that are close to the Syrian regime.

A woman walks past a poster depicting Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Syria March 5, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/YAMAM AL SHAAR)
A woman walks past a poster depicting Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Syria March 5, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/YAMAM AL SHAAR)
The Caesar Act, which was signed into law last year, is viewed by the US State Department as a key to holding the Assad regime in Syria accountable for years of crimes during the Syrian Civil War. It gives the US economic tools to go after the regime. The law came into effect on Wednesday and has struck 39 individuals so far that are close to the Syrian regime. These include Bashar al-Assad’s wife.
The tough sanctions have caused uncertainty in the Syrian economy as the Syrian currency collapsed. This affected neighboring Lebanon and has made its economic situation worse. The US administration of President Donald Trump has used sanctions systematically and strategically against adversaries. These include Iran and the Syrian regime. It is part of how the White House puts economics are the forefront of its foreign policy agenda. This has included disputes with China and Turkey over the years as well.
Overall the US believes that sanctions can break countries such as Iran and Syria. Also, the US gives sanctions waivers from time to time, such as for Iraq, to import Iranian energy. Sanctions are always hanging over trade, whether it is India and Iran, or Japan and Iran, or Turkey and Iran. The concept is to use the remaining financial muscle of the US to deter states. Overall the Trump administration has sought to drawdown US forces and Trump said at West Point recently that it is not America’s job to police the world in far away lands that he claims most Americans have not heard of.
Since the arrow of military force has been withdrawn from the arsenal, those at the State Department and Treasury, and think tanks in Washington that advise on these matters, believe sanctions are the key to creating a US foreign policy that still can be coherent during a time of US global withdrawal and retreat. The concept of “America first” can be blended with economic warfare because it can strengthen the US economy too. This could be seen as a classic Clausewitz-style concept, which views diplomacy, politics, war and other issues as all part of the same system. Economic war is war by other means. Sanctions can be part of the total war of maximum pressure on Iran. Tehran believes this as well, which is why it lashes out militarily, arguing that sanctions are a form of war.
Iran Czar Brian Hook, whose technical title is Representative for Iran, Senior advisor to the Secretary of State, US Department of State, gave a virtual talk at the Council on Foreign Relations on June 16 about this issue. The 2015 Iran Deal had given Iran sanctions relief. The US has now walked away from the deal and is able to go after things like Iran’s oil exports. Hook said that Iran provides Hezbollah 70 percent of its operating budget and that the sanctions are biting. ‘You have some of Iran’s Shia proxies in Syria say to the press that Iran doesn’t have the money that it used to and the golden days are over.”
The US now wants an extension of an arms embargo on Iran. It doesn’t want the regime buying more weapons, even as Russia and other countries look keen to end the embargo. He said that Iran has been deterred by US airstrikes in Iraq. “I think it’s important for this regime to understand that the days of running an expansionist foreign policy with impunity are over.” Hook described a multi-pronged policy involving both the sanctions and hard power kinetic means to stop Iran. This means interdicting arms flow to Houthi rebels in Yemen. He argued that the Iranian regime has not been held to account by the international community for what it has done to “create one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes.”
Overall the US goal is multifaceted. It wants to reduce Iran’s ability to fund proxies in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It also wants to box in the Syrian regime. The message is that the Assad regime “and those who support it have a simple choice: take irreversible steps toward a lasting political solution to the Syrian conflict,” or suffer crippling sanctions, according to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
This means the US has just begun to try to break the regime. Lebanon has been warned also not to overlook the consequences of this act. Regional media wonder whether this could “defeat” Assad. These high stakes now put everyone on edge. Iran has sent its Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to Turkey and Russia. Iran has apparently decided to trade with Turkey support for Turkey’s operations in Libya for sanctions relief. That means Iran and Russia and Turkey will meet on Syria very soon. The goal is to try to keep Iran and Assad afloat. After years of war the Assad regime had re-taken the south of the country in 2018 and was pressuring Idlib in the north in January 2020. But now the regime faces huge obstacles.
What happens next? New reports indicate that Iraq may be partly lost to Iranian influence despite new US-Iraq strategic dialogue. There have been six rocket attacks in ten days against US forces and facilities in Iraq. Elijah Magnier, a journalist and expert on Hezbollah and Syria tweeted recently that “there is little doubt military clashes will take place at a certain point, particularly against Israel….for certain multiple united fronts are prepared, and Syria will be part of it to face the US-Israel starvation plans.”  Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has also said that if Hezbollah is “starved” it will strike back.
It is clear that Iran and its allies are concerned. Magnier notes that the new sanctions are “an Israeli rather than a US project, Israel will end up being a potential target.” This illustrates that Iran could lash out during the next six months as the sanctions bite. Israel could be on the front line. There is often pushback to sanctions. For instance in Iran the US targeted the IRGC and in Iraq the US has targeted IRGC-linked militias, such as Kataib Hezbollah, Harakat Hezbollah al Nujaba and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. There have been rocket attacks and anti-US messaging. Iran views this as a regional conflict between the “axis of resistance” and the US, Israel and US allies in the Gulf. That is why Iran launched an attack on Saudi Arabia least year and why photos of the Houthi rebels have shown up in Iraq. It is all connected.
The overall ramifications of the US sanctions policy therefore is one that has more to it than just economic considerations. Iran views it as a conflict and Nasrallah has threatened to confront those who try to make Hezbollah starve or take Hezbollah weapons. The Trump administration has relied on sanctions in the absence of wanting to use other means. But other means may be used by adversaries to confront the sanctions doctrine.