New law set to turn up financial pressure on Bashar Assad

Even a polarized Congress can agree that tougher sanctions on Syria’s Assad regime are in the national interest. In a bipartisan vote, the Senate voted 77-23 last week for passage of the Caesar Act, a sanctions bill named for the Syrian military photographer who risked his life to expose the horrors of Bashar Assad’s torture chambers. The bill passed the House last month on a voice vote and the White House signaled its support last November.

The Caesar Act may not reach the president’s desk for several weeks, however, since the two chambers continue to disagree about whether to pass the bill on its own, or attached to legislation related to Israel. While the House and Senate iron out these details, the executive branch has an opportunity to plan ahead for how to implement the Caesar Act most effectively.

One key to the act’s success will be for the administration to send a clear message to regional allies, especially in the Gulf, that even if U.S. troops withdraw from Syria, no one has a green light to bankroll Assad’s reconstruction plans.

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Within days of President TrumpDonald John TrumpA better VA, with mental health services, is essential for America's veterans Pelosi, Nadler tangle on impeachment, contempt vote Trump arrives in Japan to kick off 4-day state visit MORE’s unexpected announcement that U.S. troops would be coming home from Syria, the United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus, which had been closed since the outbreak of war in 2011. The Emirati foreign ministry explained that “the move underscores the UAE government’s keenness to restore relations between the two brotherly countries to their normal course.” The next day, Bahrain’s foreign ministry said its embassy in Damascus was open for business.

The UAE also made an unexpected show of contempt for U.S. sanctions. In late January, it hosted a Syrian trade delegation led by Muhammad Hamsho, a businessman and close ally of Assad who has been on the U.S. sanctions list since 2011. “Hamsho earned his fortune through his connection to regime insiders,” a senior Treasury official explained, “The sanctions we are applying… to Hamsho and his company are the direct consequence of his actions.”

Well before the White House announced that U.S. troops were coming home, there were signs that the UAE was pursuing reconciliation with Assad. Last August, a leading Emirati investor reportedly met with Syrian regime officials to discuss investment in the Marota City project, the centerpiece of the regime’s reconstruction plans. While reconstruction may sound like a humanitarian endeavor, it is a means for Assad to enrich his accomplices at the expense of impoverished Syrians. To acquire land for Marota City, the regime evicted thousands of residents and razed numerous properties in the neighborhood of Basateen al-Razi, a hub of protests in the early days of the uprising against Assad.

To its credit, the European Union has already taken action against the network of regime loyalists who have bankrolled Marota city. On January 21, the EU imposed sanctions on eleven prominent business executives and five associated companies, almost all with direct ties to the project. The five companies all established joint ventures with the Damascus Cham Holding Company, a regime investment vehicle. According to the EU, the combined value of those ventures is $170 million.

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Beyond the significance of holding these companies and their leaders accountable, the EU action targets a new generation of crony capitalists who have risen up during the war, in part because their predecessors were already under sanctions, thus limited in their ability to transact on the regime’s behalf. Once the Caesar Act is signed into law, the EU’s recent targets may also find themselves in the U.S. Treasury’s crosshairs. A key provision of the act, Section 102, requires the president to impose sanctions on all those who “knowingly, directly or indirectly, provides significant construction or engineering services to the Government of Syria.” Other targets include those who help the regime expand oil and gas production and purchase aircraft or spare parts.

In legislative terms, the act authorizes secondary sanctions, meaning that they apply to foreign individuals and firms, not just American ones. The sanctions apply equally to citizens of friendly governments like the UAE and Bahrain, as well as Russian or Iranian firms, whose governments don’t hide their opposition to U.S. policy.

Last November, a senior Emirati trade official announced that his country was complying with all U.S. sanctions on Iran, which the White House had recently re-imposed. The UAE fears Iran — with good cause — and relies on its partnership with the U.S. for security. The White House should make clear that this is a two-way street.

The Assad regime could not survive without Iran’s support. In turn, it serves as a conduit for the transfer of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah. It has also begun serving as a base for direct Iranian attacks on Israel. A coherent policy to counter Iran’s malign influence cannot ignore the role of Syria. Turning up the pressure on Assad is both a strategic necessity and a moral imperative.

David Adesnik is director of research and a Syria analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @adesnik.