Another round of sanctions, the ironically named Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, has taken effect in Syria. Through the magic of secondary sanctions, Washington will forbid everyone on earth from dealing with the Syrian regime. Even before the penalties took effect, noted the Washington Post: “they have already contributed to the collapse of Syria’s long‐troubled economy.”
Thus, the law will further impoverish the Syrian people and hurt them more than their government. However, no one in Washington appears to care that national reconstruction will be further impeded. All that matters is claiming to care.
Sanctions have become the U.S. government’s “go to” policy. Whatever the problem, Washington seems to respond by launching or intensifying economic war. And American policymakers are determined to conscript the entire world in their favorite crusades, using secondary and financial penalties to dissuade others from dealing with Uncle Sam’s enemy du jour.
The policy might make sense if Washington targeted only issues of vital importance to America, directed sanctions at nations posing a genuine threat to the US or the international order, and acted when success seemed likely. Instead, US officials presume that they possess heaven’s mandate to dictate most every issue, however minor, to the rest of the world. Moreover, the likelihood of success is irrelevant. Policymakers concentrate on feeling good about themselves, attacking most any people or government with which they disagree for whatever reason.
Last year Congress, at the instigation of Senators Ted Cruz and Ron Johnson, went after longtime American ally Germany for joining with Russia to build the Nordstream 2 natural gas pipeline. Cruz and Johnson said they didn’t like Berlin being dependent on Moscow for its energy so they threatened to destroy any European company involved in the project. The pipeline will now proceed without Europe’s participation. Cynical Europeans figured the legislators were actually acting to promote domestic natural gas interests. Perhaps so, though no one should underestimate the arrogance of US legislators who really believe they know best for the rest of the world.
So far the Trump administration, sometimes pushed by Congress, has dramatically ratcheted up US sanctions against Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela. In every case America’s economic aggression has failed. No nation has yet changed policy in response to Washington’s escalation in economic hostilities.
The administration has been reduced to begging other governments to surrender‐as when President Donald Trump promised Tehran a better deal if it acted before the election, a particularly embarrassing act of groveling. Or the administration has simply claimed that the harsher penalties themselves were the success, even if they achieved nothing but increased hardship for the relevant population. So far that has been the case in Syria.
At least the administration’s campaign against Iran was no surprise. Candidate Trump stated his perverse determination to overturn the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Tehran. Originally that seemed to be rooted in his desire to reverse everything done by President Barack Obama. It was evident that Trump did not understand the nuclear accord‐for instance, he apparently believed that Washington was giving Tehran American funds, even though the cash was merely the release of Iranian monies that had been frozen.
Moreover, soon after taking office it was evident that he had been captured by the Saudi and Israeli governments and adopted their agendas, including for the US to war against Iran. Whether he acted out of a desire for current political advantage or future personal enrichment (from the Saudis after he leaves office), as claimed by some, is unknown. The result has been to make the Middle East far more volatile and dangerous.
But why the continual escalation of economic war in Syria after the president claimed he wanted to stop America’s participation in “endless wars”?
The Middle East doesn’t matter much any more. Its oil dominance has diminished and America’s energy vulnerability has fallen. Israel is a nuclear‐armed regional superpower well able to defend itself. The region is ever unstable and every recent American intervention has made it more dangerous. Thus, Washington’s default position should be military disengagement and more limited, thoughtful, and nuanced diplomatic involvement.
Alas, that is the farthest objective from the Trump administration. The US is still deeply enmeshed in Syria. Why?
The Syrian Arab Republic is an artifact of World War I and long was a French protectorate. For nearly six decades it has been ruled by the Baath Party, which created a secular dictatorship. The al‐Assad family has been in power since 1971. During the same period Damascus was allied with Moscow, first as the Soviet Union and more recently as Russia.
The adversarial result didn’t matter much to America. Washington had more extensive and enduring relationships with more Middle Eastern nations than the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War. Syria never threatened America and lost repeated military encounters with Israel. Eventually Damascus gave up on the latter: in 2007 Israel destroyed a suspected nuclear reactor without triggering Syrian retaliation.
When the Arab Spring sparked protests in Syria, Washington did most everything wrong. First, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed President Bashar al‐Assad to be a “reformer,” a bizarre characterization for someone who had managed the family dictatorship for the previous decade. Then she decided that he should be overthrown, discouraging both his government and the opposition from negotiating, since both sides presumed that Washington would accept nothing less than his ouster.
Although US officials were convinced Syria was overrun with moderates ready to take power, members of Syria’s religious minorities were more skeptical of the good intentions of those who pushed for Assad’s overthrow. When I visited Syria, one Alawite told me that even the early protesters shouted such slogans as “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the grave.” That did not inspire confidence in following Iraq and allowing Islamic extremists to take control, which ended badly for all concerned.
The US went through a highly bureaucratic process of finding, vetting, and arming supposed “moderates,” without much success. One half billion‐dollar program produced fewer than three score fighters, most of whom were promptly captured or eliminated. Many troops trained and armed by Washington defected or surrendered, along with their U.S.-supplied weapons, to more radical forces, including the al‐Nusra Front, the local al‐Qaeda affiliate. The Obama administration’s simultaneous backing for the Free Syrian Army and war against the Islamic State encouraged the Assad government to target the former and avoid the latter. All the while, noted the Wall Street Journal, “human rights advocates say that tens of thousands of [US] airstrikes have killed far more noncombatants than the coalition admits.”
In contrast to Russia’s simple objective of preserving the Assad regime, American policymakers set a gaggle of conflicting goals. Oust Assad, who opposed ISIS, which the US also hoped to defeat. Treat Turkey as an ally, even though the Erdogan government allowed the Islamic State easy access to Syria in the early years; indeed, regime allies and Erdogan family members were accused of trading with ISIS. Work with Syrian Kurdish forces against the Islamic State, even though the former were viewed by Ankara as a grievous security threat, allied with Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Oust Russia and Iran, both allied with Syria and actively opposing Islamic fundamentalists, including the Islamic State. Look away as Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates went AWOL in the ISIS campaign to launch a bloody, aggressive war against Yemen, which created a new humanitarian crisis and sectarian conflict.
Unsurprisingly, the result was disastrous failure. The only objective achieved was the defeat of the Islamic State. The Assad regime survives, Moscow and Tehran remain, Turkey has ethnically cleansed many of the Kurds and retains influence over the only opposition territory, around the City of Idlib, which is largely controlled by Jabhat Fatah al‐Sham, al-Nusra’s new name. These fighters remain the ideological successors to 9/11. Heck’uva a result for almost a decade of effort by Washington!
Yet the US remains entangled, illegally occupying Syrian territory and oilfields. A few hundred military personnel are supposed to convince Russia to leave, Iran to give up on Syria, al‐Assad to quit, the Islamic State not to return, and Ankara to be nice to the Kurds. US forces risk clashes with Syrian troops, who belong there, Iranian and Russian forces, who have been invited there, and Turkish soldiers, which Washington allowed there. No one is holding their breath that even one of the administration’s objectives, let alone all of them, is going to be achieved. The best characterization of US policy is that it is stupid and possibly mad.
Despite Washington’s continuing troop presence, the Pentagon’s Lead Inspector General admitted: “Iranian‐backed forces continue supporting pro‐regime operations across Syria, including the Syrian regime’s offensive in Idlib this quarter. The DIA reported … that Iran has leveraged its critical manpower, financial, and materiel aid for the Syrian regime not only to secure the survival of the Iranian‐friendly regime but also to support its broader strategic goals, including maintaining a long‐term presence in Syria, protecting Shia shrines and population centers, and preserving its ability to supply Hezbollah.”
Now the US is again intensifying sanctions. No doubt, Assad shares responsibility for his country’s economic travails. However, US policymakers have done as much as possible to hurt the Syrian people. Who will suffer again from the latest round of penalties.
Basma Alloush, Syrian humanitarian activist and Alex Simon of Synaps’ Syria Program warned: “without robust safeguards and a far more coherent overall US policy, we fear the Caesar Act risks falling into a trap, hurting the very civilians it aims to protect while largely failing to affect the Syrian government itself.” Julien Barnes‐Dacey of the European Council on Foreign Relations voiced similar concerns: “My fear is that Caesar will achieve the exact opposite of its stated goals, fueling the worst impulses of the Syrian regime and wider conflict. The US self‐declared maximum pressure campaign aims to bring the regime to its knees and force its backers to concede defeat but the regime knows how to brutally hold onto power and it’s clear that its key backers aren’t for moving.”
Bashar al‐Assad refused to quit even when insurgents controlled Damascus suburbs just a few minutes outside of the city center. So the fact that his people face more intense economic hardship is unlikely to cause him to flee into exile. It is striking how little official Washington cares about those actually targeted by its measures. As Madeleine Albright declared when asked about the human cost of sanctions on Iraq, “We think the price is worth it.” The price is always paid by others. In this case the Syrian people. So Washington always thinks the price is worth it, irrespective of the poor likelihood of success.
The best case, from the administration’s viewpoint, is increased hardship, chaos, renewed civil war, and regime change. Such a process could be long and bloody. It could lead to the revival of ISIS and other jihadist groups. It could lead to murder and ethnic cleansing of Christians, Alawites, and other minorities. No wonder Damascus called the Caesar Act “economic terrorism.” But no matter. If al‐Assad ultimately is swept away, US policymakers will celebrate, complimenting each other for their statesmanship, leadership, and vision.
Of course, there is no reason to assume that victory would be followed by the ascension to power of a Syrian Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, prepared to lead a liberal revolution into the sunset. Especially given the dominant role of jihadists in the insurgency and current presence of Iranian and Russian forces as well as Lebanon’s Hezbollah: more likely, the outcome would be something very different. Again and again the US has demonstrated its inability to predict let alone control events even after it blows up a government or country.
The most likely outcome of the latest US initiative is greater poverty among Syrians and greater repression by the regime to ensure its survival. No one will be better off, least of all the Syrian people. But their welfare really does not matter when formulating American policy. As Albright made clear, “We think the price is worth it.” And that is all that matters.
Syria is an extraordinary human tragedy, one which US policy exacerbated almost a decade ago when a negotiated solution seemed possible. Instead of pretending that American micro‐management and social engineering are likely to succeed, finally!, this time, Washington should admit that not every Mideast disaster is America’s problem to resolve. Let other governments try for a change.
A good start would be for the US to bring home its troops from and end its sanctions on Syria. Washington should stop its cruel attempt to force regime change by impoverishing an already desperate population. The price is not worth it, contra Albright and those who think like her. As the president put it with his usual eloquence, it is time for America to “Get the hell out of Syria.”