Pursuing a hawkish policy similar to its “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions against Iran, the Trump administration started enforcing a sweeping set of penalties on the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad in mid-June under the “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019” — commonly known as the Caesar Act— and Executive Order 13894.
According to a “fact sheet” released by the US Department of State on June 17, the Caesar Act — which President Donald Trump signed into law on December 20, 2019 — targets “foreign persons who facilitate the Assad regime’s acquisition of goods, services, or technologies” that support its military activities, oil and gas production industries, and reconstruction work. In a similar vein, Executive Order 13894, signed by President Trump on October 17, 2019, features “menu-based sanctions” that include “isolation from the United States’ financial system for foreign persons who engage in or finance the obstruction, prevention, or disruption of a ceasefire or political solution” to the Syria conflict.
The “Caesar Act” and associated punitive measures are aimed at exerting “maximum pressure on the Syrian regime towards full implementation of the political process.”
Described as the “toughest sanctions” against Syria to date, the “Caesar Act” and associated punitive measures are aimed at exerting “maximum pressure on the Syrian regime towards full implementation of the political process,” in the words of the State Department, which are notably reminiscent of the US policy towards Tehran—a key ally of the Assad government.
Yet, other than its devastating economic consequences for war-weary Syrian civilians, including severe food shortages — according to World Food Program estimates, in the past six months alone, the number of “food insecure” people in Syria has increased from 7.9 to 9.3 million — the Caesar Act could deter international actors from engaging in political reconciliation or post-war reconstruction initiatives in the Arab nation. Thus creating greater maneuvering space for a state like Iran that is already under “maximum pressure” and has little to lose in the face of American retribution.
Consolidation of Iran-Syria Alliance
Well in advance of the implementation of broad-based sanctions against Damascus under the Caesar Act, Tehran had been eying an expansion of its share in Syria’s “$200 billion [post-war] market” as the conflict winds down, albeit unsmoothly, in favor of the Assad government and US-led sanctions continue to squeeze the Iranian economy.
“Despite eminent political ties between Iran and Syria, there is a missing link, that is, economic relations” which have been “traditionally weak” between the two nations, particularly their private sectors, Hassan Danayifar, head of the Headquarters for Development of Iran’s Economic Ties with Iraq and Syria, said in an interview in October 2019.
A former ambassador to Iraq, Danayifar added that over the preceding year, twelve 22-strong groups of Iranian business people have visited Syria. Tehran has also received members of the Syrian business community for economic deals. And the “Iranian-Syrian trade balance rose by 25 [percent]” since last year. He also highlighted “Russia’s and China’s entry” into the Syrian economy and called for “vigilance” with respect to “rivals.”
Quite predictably, this focus on addressing the “missing link” in Tehran-Damascus ties gained momentum after the Caesar Act went into force on June 17. On the same day, an Iranian delegation headed by Danayifar met with Syrian Prime Minister Hussein Arnous in Damascus for negotiations on expansion of bilateral economic, cultural, and scientific relations. Interestingly, Arnous stressed during the meeting that “Syria has a comprehensive plan to develop its agricultural and food industry with the purpose of augmenting Syrian people’s sustainability in the face of cruel sanctions and [economic] siege on the country.”
Tehran’s increased economic engagement in Syria comes at a time when the Caesar Act is widely expected to tie the hands, ironically, of the US’ Arab allies in the region.
Tehran’s increased economic engagement in Syria comes at a time when the Caesar Act is widely expected to tie the hands, ironically, of the US’ Arab allies in the region. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have in particular demonstrated growing interest in normalizing diplomatic and economic relations with the Assad government, partly to counterbalance growing Iranian clout and outmaneuver Turkey.
In late March, Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), who spearheads the UAE’s increasingly proactive regional policy, tweeted a summary of his phone call with President Bashar al-Assad on the spread of the coronavirus in Syria: “I . . . assured him of the support of the UAE and its assistance to the brotherly Syrian people in these exceptional circumstances. . . . Human solidarity in times of adversity is above all else, and sisterly Syria will not remain alone in these critical conditions.”
Notably, US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey admonished Washington’s Arab allies against such rapprochement efforts on the same day the Caesar Act was implemented. “Now, in terms of the UAE, the UAE knows that we are absolutely opposed to countries taking these diplomatic steps,” Jeffrey warned on June 17. “They’re sovereign countries; they can make these decisions. But we have made it clear that we think this is a bad idea.”
The same restraining dynamic might apply to Russia, the most powerful ally of the Assad government which actively seeks to get the Syrian post-war reconstruction project off the ground, albeit to a lesser extent.
Meanwhile, Iranian attempts to “turn threats into opportunities” in Syria — as foreign policy makers in Tehran usually put it — are not limited to the “soft” policy areas of economy and trade.
Iranian attempts to “turn threats into opportunities” in Syria are not limited to the “soft” policy areas of economy and trade.
In late June, Iran’s hardline Tasnim News agency – affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) – claimed in a rare report removed shortly after its publication that Quds Force commander General Esmail Qaani had traveled to Syria to oversee “operational zones of fight against the Islamic State.” Less than a fortnight later, Tehran and Damascus signed a “comprehensive” military pact to boost Syria’s “air defense” capabilities during a visit on July 8 by General Mohammad Bagheri, Chief of Staff of Iran’s armed forces, in his meeting with Syrian Defense Minister Ali Ayyoub.
“This accord will cement our resolve and determination for joint cooperation against American pressures,” the latter noted in clear reference to the Caesar Act sanctions and relentless Israeli airstrikes against Syrian and Iranian military positions on the ground. The deal, hailed as “strategically valuable” by sources close to Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), has raised the possibility of the IRGC deploying air defense equipment, including Bavar 373 road-mobile surface-to-air missile systems, in Syria to fend off Israeli air raids as Russia continues to turn a blind eye to them, much to Tehran’s dismay.
Closer Iranian involvement in Syria should also be considered against the backdrop of Russian balancing acts between Iran and Israel – particularly in regions adjacent to Israeli-held territory such as Quneitra and the Golan Heights, and Moscow’s rivalrous attempts to contain IRGC-backed paramilitary groups across the Syrian terrain more broadly.
The bottom line, however, is that the Caesar Act will ironically increase the Syrian government’s dependence on the Islamic Republic, similar to what American “maximum pressure” on Venezuela has done. And is thus expected, given the evolving realities on the ground, to empower Iran into an even bigger “veto player” in Syria.