Ignore Jimmy Carter: Ramp up the economic pressure on Assad

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Jimmy Carter’s name was once synonymous with human rights; now he’s calling for the U.S. and its allies to lift their sanctions on the Assad regime and begin funding the reconstruction of Syria.

The premise of Mr. Carter’s argument is that Assad and his minions may be capable of rising above the blood-drenched policies of the past seven years. Why not, Carter asks, “test the Syrian government’s ability to embark on a new course that has the potential to bring the war to a close?”

The answer to that question lies in the 55,000 images from Assad’s torture chambers captured by a Syrian military photographer known only as Caesar. In 2013, he fled the country, bringing with him this detailed evidence of mass murder.

{mosads}Caesar testified before Congress in 2014, outfitted with a disguise to conceal his identity and protect him from retaliation. His testimony inspired the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, or Caesar Act, an aggressive sanctions package that passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support in November 2016.


The Senate had little time to act before the end of the year, so the House passed a new version of the bill in May 2017, shortly after President Donald Trump launched airstrikes to punish Assad for using chemical weapons, which Damascus had supposedly surrendered years earlier.

It is difficult to explain how a former president who declared human rights to be “the soul of [his] foreign policy” could possibly believe that Assad is anything but an unrepentant war criminal. The problem may be excessive familiarity with the Syrian dictator, rather than ignorance of his crimes.

Three years ago, Carter observed, “I have known Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, since he was a college student in London.” From negotiating with Assad after his rise to power, the former president concluded “it was almost psychologically impossible for him to change his mind — and certainly not when under pressure.” Thus, Western demands were pointless.

What Carter seems not to have noticed is that extreme pressure is the only proven method for changing Assad’s mind. When Assad feared that American airstrikes were imminent in the summer of 2013, he handed over most of his chemical arsenal. Then it became clear that Barack Obama had no appetite for intervention, so Assad returned to his old ways.

When President Trump launched his first round of airstrikes, Assad paused his chemical attacks for several months, then began to test American resolve with attacks that employed less lethal agents such as chlorine. This led to a second round of strikes in which Britain and France joined the United States. For the moment, Assad has once again lain aside his illicit weapons.

Force is not an option for removing Assad, however. The president has made clear that he wants fewer troops in Syria, not more. That is precisely why sanctions are so important. Assad only survives thanks to the billions of dollars of aid he receives each year from Iran, as well as the billions that Iran spends to deploy both its Revolutionary Guards and Shiite militias to fight on Assad’s behalf.

Both U.S. and EU sanctions have restricted Assad’s access to funding, but there are significant gaps in enforcement as well as well as the need for new kinds of sanctions, like the ones in the Caesar Act.

The biggest shortcoming on the enforcement side involves Iran’s continued shipment to Assad of hundreds of millions of dollars of crude oil each year, in direct violation of sanctions. The U.S. and EU have also been slow to designate the new crop of Syrian oligarchs, such as Samer Foz and Husam Katerji, that handle transactions for Damascus now that their predecessors, such as Rami Makhlouf, have been sanctioned. Finally, the SWIFT financial messaging network should expel Syrian banks immediately, just as it should Iranian ones.

Carter suggests that the U.S. and EU should do away with sanctions because they depress the Syrian economy and hurt ordinary citizens. Yet the great danger for ordinary citizens is not sanctions, but Assad’s barrel bombs and Russian airstrikes, whose brutality was on display yet again this year during the campaigns in East Ghouta and the southern regions of the country near the Jordanian and Israeli borders.

Furthermore, the UN and other benefactors continue to deliver hundreds of millions of dollars of aid each year to regime-held areas, even though Assad illegally prevents the aid from reaching rebel-held territory and may be diverting it to his own coffers.

Even if sanctions cannot remove Assad, they help to contain him and to raise the cost Iran and Russia must pay to keep him in power. Already, protesters in Iran are demanding to know why their government lets them suffer while bankrolling a butcher.

One means of ramping up the pressure on Assad would be for the Senate to vote finally on the Caesar Act. The Foreign Relations Committee has yet to consider the bill, although it is working on the text.

The dynamics on the Hill might change if President Trump recalls how he felt when he saw Syrian children choking to death on Assad’s chemical weapons, and then uses his Twitter account to spur the Senate to act. 

While uncertainty remains about the president’s intentions regarding Syria, the Caesar Act is fully consistent with his policy of countering Iran’s malign influence in the region. Likewise, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted, “Iran must withdraw all forces under Iranian command throughout the entirety of Syria.” To achieve that goal, the U.S. must intensify the pressure on Assad.

Reconciliation and re-engagement with Assad will only reward him for his atrocities, rather than promoting change. Congress and the White House should dispense with such illusions as they search for the best way forward on Syria.

David Adesnik is director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @adesnik.

Tags Barack Obama Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act Donald Trump Middle East Mike Pompeo Syria Syrian civil war

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