Protests spread across Syria 10 years ago Monday, on March 15, 2011. The regime of Bashar Assad responded to this peaceful uprising with gunfire, arbitrary detentions, and torture. Military units defected. Islamic extremists took up arms. A decade of civil war had begun.
On April 12, 2011, security forces arrested a 15-year-old protester named Omar Alshogre. They pulled out his fingernails and gave him electric shocks but released him after two days. The regime arrested Alshogre again in November 2012 when he was 17. They hung him from the ceiling with shackles. He confessed to crimes he never committed. Later, in a military intelligence prison, interrogators raped and tortured a woman in front of her two small children. Alshogre was also in the room, waiting to be questioned. When his turn came, the interrogators smashed his knees until he could no longer stand.
Last year, Alshogre testified before Congress about his experience. He fled Syria in 2015 after bribes from his mother secured his release. Since then, he has become a global advocate for Assad’s victims and for imposing tougher sanctions on the regime. Congress moved slowly, yet in December 2019, it passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act with overwhelming bipartisan support. When the Caesar Act went into effect last June, the State and Treasury departments accelerated their campaign against the Syrian regime, announcing 113 new designations.
Yet, the sanctions debate is not over. “It is infuriating to see the Assad regime blaming its own economic failures on the Caesar Act,” Alshogre wrote last October, “but what has been more disappointing is how many people both inside and outside of Syria have subscribed to the regime’s misinformation.” To be fair, most opponents of sanctions in the United States and Europe believe in all sincerity that they support what is best for the Syrian people. Yet, they still often make the same flawed arguments as the regime’s own spokesmen.
For example, in the Washington Examiner, the Swedish activist and reporter Nuri Kino wrote that since the Caesar Act went into effect, “inflation has increased to its highest level. After being one of the most flourishing countries in the Middle East, Syria now has streets filled with beggars and homeless people.” But the United Nations World Food Program, which tracks market prices in Syria, reported that inflation was already surging in December 2019 when Congress passed the Caesar Act. Syria certainly has streets filled with beggars, yet to blame this on the Caesar Act without mentioning the scorched-earth tactics of Assad and his enablers is more than a little one-sided.
Kino also cites the opposition to sanctions from Ignatius Aphrem II, the patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, who has called on President Biden to hear “our plea and lift the sanctions to end the misery of millions of Syrians. Children are literally starving because of the embargo against Syria. People are dying from the lack of medicine and adequate medical supplies.” In fact, U.S. law expressly prohibits sanctions on food and medicine. Furthermore, the U.S. has contributed $12 billion of humanitarian aid to Syria since 2011, more than any other country. Kino does not mention it.
These omissions are not surprising in light of Assad’s success in coopting Syrian church leaders. Perhaps out of fear, Ignatius Aphrem and other Syrian patriarchs have become the dictator’s advocates. In 2018, three of them issued a joint statement denying that Assad used chemical weapons. Furthermore, they said, “We salute the courage, heroism, and sacrifices of the Syrian Arab Army, which courageously protects Syria and provide security for its people.”
Sanctions alone cannot substitute for a thoughtful policy toward Syria. As Alshogre observes, they are not a silver bullet. Humanitarian aid should continue. The U.S. and other donors should push together to reform the U.N. agencies that deliver the aid on their behalf since Assad diverts much of it to his own coffers. The administration should also work with allies to ensure that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons condemns and suspends the regime for its criminal use of sarin and chlorine.
It is also essential to continue the fight against the Islamic State in northeast Syria. With only hundreds of troops, the U.S. has leveraged the efforts of tens of thousands of local fighters (Kurdish, Arab, and even Syriac) who bore the brunt of the campaign to dismantle the caliphate. A U.S. withdrawal would pave the way for a resurgence of ISIS, as well as the extension of Assad’s control over millions of Syrians.
There have been few major battles in Syria since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, yet the war is far from over. The U.S. may not be able to end that war, but a well-crafted policy, including sanctions, can shape its course and alleviate suffering while imposing a measure of accountability on Assad and his enablers.
David Adesnik is a senior fellow and director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy. Follow David on Twitter: @Adesnik. FDD is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security issues.