Business & trade, Middle East, Regional conflicts, Top Stories

Inside the scramble to shape Syria sanctions

A flurry of lobbyists, advocates and government officials are scrambling to get the Donald Trump administration’s attention ahead of this week’s deadline to begin enacting the toughest sanctions to date on Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

On one side are Syrian-American groups and hawkish organizations that are having their moment after years of fighting to hold Assad to account for the country’s bloody civil war and force him to the negotiating table. Others believe it’s too late, that Assad has won the war and that getting back to business with Damascus is the only way to get the region back on track after a decade of destruction.

The dueling influence campaigns are playing out ahead of this Wednesday’s deadline for the administration to determine whether the Central Bank of Syria is a “primary money laundering concern.” The deadline is spelled out the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which Congress wrapped into its annual Defense bill in December after years of debate. Other entities may also be designated by name on Wednesday.

Named after the code name of a dissident military photographer who smuggled out thousands of images of the regime’s horrors, the bill notably seeks to sanction anyone around the world who knowingly engages in “significant” transactions with Damascus or its foreign enablers, including Hezbollah and Russian mercenaries. In addition to military support, the law also seeks to prohibit support for Syria’s energy industry and other key sectors seen as underpinning Assad’s war machine.

“The idea was among some Lebanese officials and others that we can be involved in business with Assad,” said Joseph Gebeily, the president of the Lebanese Information Center in Washington. “Caesar might take away those thoughts.”

Groups lobbying for expansive sanctions include the US nonprofits Americans for a Free Syria and Citizens for a Secure and Safe America, both of which have lobbied on the Caesar bill for years. The Syrian Emergency Task Force has also played a crucial role in the law’s passage but is not registered to lobby.

The expected central bank designation “bears all sorts of implications for individuals doing business with the central bank, obviously. But it is also the earliest expected date that additional designations under the auspices of the Caesar Act would be handed down from Treasury,” said Thomas Georges, the communications director and a registered lobbyist at Americans for a Free Syria. He called the bank a “chief tool in the enrichment of the oligarchy in Syria to the detriment of the Syrian people.”

Americans for a Free Syria has spent $78,500 lobbying Congress and the administration to pass and now implement the bill since 2017, according to a review of lobbying records by Foreign Lobby Report.

Citizens for a Secure and Safe America for its part paid $330,000 to Ballard Partners, the firm started by former Trump Florida lobbyist Brian Ballard, from April 2018 until September 2019. The group rehired Ballard last December as the Caesar bill became law. Since then, the nonprofit has disbursed another $70,000 as Justin Sayfie and Ballard himself have focused their attention on the White House.

The bill does have its critics, however.

Lebanon for example had been counting on the resumption of trade and reconstruction contracts in next-door Syria to help revive its moribund economy. Instead, the Caesar Act explicitly lists the provision of significant construction and engineering services to the regime as sanctionable activities.

“Our primary concern is how this affects Lebanon,” Lebanese Ambassador to the United States Gabriel Issa told Foreign Lobby Reports. “That is our primary concern, and nothing else. That said, we are conducting a wide variety of outreach efforts across a number of fronts in order to mitigate the effects on Lebanon as much as possible.”

The Lebanese banking industry has also long been worried about its exposure to US sanctions, although it’s not clear the Caesar bill is much of a concern. The private-sector Association of Banks in Lebanon has paid DLA Piper $4.27 million since 2012 to help protect its reputation and avoid a backlash in Washington. Among the lobbyists on the account is Richard Newcomb, a former Treasury Department official who oversaw the implementation of 39 sanctions programs during his time as director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) from 1987 to 2004.

“We are conducting a wide variety of outreach efforts across a number of fronts in order to mitigate the effects on Lebanon as much as possible.”

Lebanese Ambassador Gabriel Issa

Also fretting: The Syrian Kurds. Threatened by a hostile Turkey and feeling abandoned by their erstwhile US ally, the Kurds rely on oil sales and other trade with Damascus to support the semi-autonomous region they have carved out for themselves in northeast Syria. The Kurds have operated in Washington via the US Mission of the Syrian Democratic Council since January 2018 and report collecting about $8,000 to $10,000 a month from “various Syrian and Kurdish grassroots supporters in the United States,” while spending $7,200 per month on office expenses and rent.

On Saturday, the civil council in the former Islamic State capital of Raqqa, which is now controlled by majority-Kurdish forces, held a closed meeting to discuss the Caesar law’s pending repercussions on the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANEW). Last week, the regional administration announced the formation of an economic crisis management team to handle the sanctions. “The sanctions imposed by the United States of America on the Syrian government under Caesar Act, will have a significant impact on the living situation in Syria, but the Autonomous Administration will take actions to mitigate its effects,” SDC head Ilham Ahmed told the region’s North Press Agency.

The Kurds’ allies in Washington have amplified their voice.

At a virtual hearing on “Safeguarding Religious Freedom in Northeast Syria” last week, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom raised concerns that sanctions would isolate the Kurdish area, which has a strong record on protecting religious minorities.

“We recommend an expansion of U.S. engagement with and assistance to the AANES, including lifting sanctions for only AANES-governed areas,” Commission Vice-Chairwoman Nadine Maenza said at the hearing. “It is also important that the new Caesar Act sanctions, passed by Congress to penalize the Assad Regime, are implemented in a way that does not negatively impact the AANES.”

The dividing lines between champions and critics of the Caesar sanctions are not always clear cut, however.

On Sunday, a couple dozen Syrian-Americans protested in front of the Lehigh County Courthouse in downtown Allentown, Pennsylvania, raising concerns that the law could make it harder to send money to friends and family back in Syria.

Meanwhile in Lebanon, American University of Beirut lecturer Makram Rabah argued Monday that regular Lebanese will be better off making a clean break with the Assad regime.

“With their country occupied by forces of corruption and tyranny,” Rabah wrote in Al-Arabiya, “the Lebanese are better off with the international community in their corner and for tools, such as the Caesar Act, to be implemented that will help them liberate their country from the domestic and foreign forces they once called friends.”