The Washington “Blob” still seeks to punish the Syrian government

Helena Cobban
Dec 19, 2019 · 6 min read

The U.S. House and Senate this week both passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorizes a record-breaking (and very disturbing) $738 billion in military spending in FY2020. Among the add-ons passed alongside the NDAA was the “Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act”, a long-stalled measure that tightens sanctions on Syria and its allies until the Syrian government holds accountable the perpetrators of war crimes.

Casualty of the Syrian civil war

The Caesar Act was named for a collection of thousands of extremely disturbing photographs of mangled bodies of Syrians, many of them reportedly killed in the government’s prisons. Its passage will have little immediate effect on Syria. Syria has been under one form or another of U.S. sanctions for 40 years now and long ago learned to run a generally functioning economy despite them. The Caesar Act’s adoption nonetheless provides disturbing indicators about the direction of U.S. policy and the inclinations of the foreign-policy elites of both big U.S. parties — toward war-torn Syria, and also more generally.

The Caesar Act is unabashedly one-sided. It makes no mention of the many well-documented atrocities committed by opposition groups such as the Al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. (This, though many of the photos in the “Caesar” collection, which was smuggled out of Syria by a former military photographer in 2015, apparently show the bodies of civilians killed in bombings carried out by HTS precursor groups.) Its passage shows that the Congressional leaders of both the major U.S. parties remain determined to punish and isolate Bashar al-Assad’s government, rather than exploring ways to engage with Damascus in an attempt to de-escalate the country’s hideous internal conflicts and start to rebuild its physical and social/political infrastructure.

The party leaders’ continued insistence on punishing and isolating Damascus is particularly unfortunate, given that the Syrian Constitutional Committee, a U.N.-backed peace gathering that is the best hope Syrians have had for years to negotiate both an end to their conflict and some serious constitutional reform, held its opening session in Geneva just last month.

The Democratic and GOP leaders’ shared fixation on punishing Pres. Assad was pre-figured in the report issued in late September by the Congressionally-mandated Syria Study Group (SSG). The report held out the (actually chimerical) hope that Washington’s years-long support for violent regime change in Syria had not failed and claimed that “the United States maintains leverage to shape an outcome in Syria” that would protect what it identified as “core U.S. national security interests.”

It spelled out that the key points of this leverage were: “influence over northeastern Syria; sanctions against the Assad regime and its backers; the withholding of reconstruction assistance desired by Assad and Russia; and the ongoing diplomatic isolation of the Assad regime.”

The SSG had twelve members, six nominated by the leading Democratic members of relevant House and Senate committees and six by their GOP counterparts. Its membership thus provided a sharp snapshot of the bipartisan “blob” that has dominated Washington’s thinking on Syria and related matters for many years. The two co-chairs — each nominated by one of the parties — were both senior staffers of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a body with long-established ties to the (fiercely anti-Syrian) American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC.

Regarding the recently-passed Caesar Act, its adoption had implications far beyond the immediate Syria-Israel theater. It showed that the Washington policy elite still has few suggestions for how to deal with complex policy (and humanitarian) challenges overseas other than imposing or tightening sanctions on the various actors that, in its bipartisan consensus, it has judged to be “bad”.

Official Washington’s fascination with sanctions — especially in cases where outright regime change has been attempted and then shown to fail — goes back as far as Cuba, in the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. More recently, it has been applied to Nicolas Maduro’s government in Venezuela. Along the way, pre-2003 Iraq, and Iran and Russia until today, have all been prominent targets of U.S. sanctions. (Iran and Russia are explicitly mentioned, alongside Syria, as potential targets of Caesar Act sanctions.)

Some attempts have been made in more recent years to “target” sanctions more tightly on the leaders and policymakers in countries judged to be acting badly. But still, U.S. sanctions have continued to inflict often harsh privations on the entire populations of those countries, while the leaders have always found ways to continue making money.

The whole battery of U.S. sanctions regimes imposed against numerous countries has had knock-on effects on the global economy, too, as they have added complexity, uncertainty, and bottlenecks to trading ties at several removes from the targeted countries. They have also led many countries beyond those directly affected to work on building alternatives to the U.S.-dominated financial instruments that have long been standard. Over time, this will almost certainly weaken Washington’s position in economic affairs.

In the case of Syria, it is obviously true that countless, often unspeakable atrocities have been committed in the course of the nine-year civil war. Those bereaved by the killings and those who survived the tortures and other brutal acts will live for many years to come with the scars and memories of that brutality, and they deserve to have their wounding acknowledged and addressed as fully and as speedily as possible. But the way the mainstream narrative of the Washington policy elite frames these challenges, including with its full-throated support for the Caesar Act, is faulty in several ways.

First, it plays to a deepseated American desire to identify “goodies and baddies” that unquestioningly consigns the Syrian government to the latter role while saying nothing about how to address the effects of the many terrible atrocities committed by anti-government forces (including some that for years were supported by Washington.) Experience from all other atrocity-laden conflicts, including those in former Yugoaslavia, South Africa, Iraq, and elsewhere, tells us it is impossible to build a fair, sustainable political order in the aftermath of atrocity if the “accountability” efforts that accompany that effort are one-sided.

Second, the mainstream narrative pays no heed to the inevitable fact that, for every day the conflict continues, additional atrocities will continue to be committed by one side or the other (or both — or, in a conflict as complex as Syria’s, by all the many “sides” involved.) The commission of large-scale atrocities never comes out of nowhere. Atrocities are both enabled by the lawlessness of war and fueled by the fears it arouses. The rate at which they are committed plummets after a peace settlement. Many people commit acts in wartime that they would not dream of committing in a time of peace.

I lived and worked as a journalist in Lebanon for the first five years of its civil war, 1976–81. I walked through the gore of slaughtered civilians. I counted the body parts of movie-goers attacked by “double-tap” explosives. I visited the hospitals and morgues. Based on my personal experience and my subsequent studies of conflict-termination efforts in a number of African countries, I know that the highest priority in any civil war has to be given to ending the fighting… and, as a corollary, that all accountability-seeking measures, to be workable or effective, need to be embedded in that effort. They cannot stand apart from it; and they should never be proposed — as the Syria Study Group report seemed to do — as a way of over-riding, postponing, or placing conditions on the quest for peace.

The SSG report argues that Pres. Assad’s government “has not won the conflict in Syria” and that Washington still has time to use the “points of leverage” it possesses — including the power of sanctions, and “isolation” of the Syrian government — to protect what it defines as the United States’ “core national security interests” in the country. Washington’s refusal to join or even tacitly back the peacemaking diplomacy now underway for Syria is quite in line with the SSG’s thinking. It is a cruel, unrealistic, and myopic recipe for prolonging Syria’s internal conflict, and therefore the Syrian people’s suffering. It is a recipe, too, for an unending U.S. “intervention” in Syrian affairs that is in the interest of neither Americans nor Syrians.

Helena Cobban

Written by

Veteran analyst of global affairs, with a focus on the Middle East. Senior Fellow, Ctr for International Policy. Fuller bio at my Wikipedia page.

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