The practice of turning a blind eye to those Lebanese entities that are complicit in the Assad regime’s war cannot continue. Caesar is coming to Lebanon and with it comes accountability and an opportunity for reform.
by Michael D. Barbero -Source: Annahar
In this January 13, 2010 file photo, Syrian employees stack packets of Syrian currency in the Central Syrian Bank in, Damascus, Syria. (AP Photo)
When President Trump signed into law the “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019” (the Caesar Act) on December 20, 2019, the United States instituted the most significant regime of sanctions ever applied against the Assad regime and its supporters. According to the US State Department, these targeted sanctions are designed to:
– deter Assad and his regime from abusing the international financial system and global supply chain to continue brutalizing the Syrian people.
– prevent the Assad regime and its associates from profiteering from the war that the regime itself has thrust upon the Syrian people.
– send a clear signal that no foreign business should enter into business with or otherwise enrich such a regime.
Unlike previous sanctions, the Caesar Act is significant in that it also targets the network of third-country actors – like Iran and Hezbollah — which engage in activities supporting the Assad regime and its war on the Syrian people. These external support networks have been critical to Assad’s survival and his ability to wage war and they will now be targeted with crippling US sanctions.
The Caesar Act is intended to bring accountability to those entities which have long supported and profited from Assad’s brutal war. If applied correctly, these sanctions also serve US interests by checking Iran’s influence, weakening Hezbollah overall and diminishing Hezbollah’s growing stranglehold on power in Lebanon.
The Caesar Act’s Impact on Lebanon
The Caesar Act has sent shock waves throughout Lebanon, with the realization that the Lebanese entities and businesses which have profited from supporting the Assad regime are now in the crosshairs of real and crippling international sanctions. This Act sends a clear and unmistakable message to Hezbollah, its supporters in the Lebanese government and corrupt Lebanese businesses: the international community, led by the US, will uncover and target those who enable the Assad regime to carry out atrocities in the Syrian conflict.
Hezbollah has been transparent about its direct support to Assad’s war. Hezbollah has long been active on the ground in Syria, maintaining forces and conducting combat operations from Hezbollah operational and training bases inside Syria. Hezbollah and its allies have also controlled the lucrative smuggling trade through illegal crossings from Lebanon to Syria. Properly targeted sanctions under this Act will diminish Hezbollah’s influence and cut off critical sources of financing. Hezbollah, justifiably, is expected to be the primary loser from the Caesar Act.
However, the Caesar Act is designed to reach beyond Hezbollah to target other key actors, including prominent political figures in Lebanon and their business cronies. Lebanese political parties, including Hezbollah’s supporter, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which have long been complicit in enabling support to the Assad regime. It is suspected that these Hezbollah-friendly political parties and leaders have, at the least, turned a blind eye towards illegal smuggling, or, at worst, actively protected those friendly businesses engaged in smuggling support to the Syrian regime. These corrupt entitles in Lebanon are certain to be targeted alongside Hezbollah because the goal of the Caesar Act is to hold accountable all parties which have provided any kind of support to, or in any way enabled, the brutality of the Assad regime.
This Act considerably expands the authority of the U.S. government to target businesses, individuals, and government entities for engaging in economic activities that support the Assad regime. While the Act is designed to mitigate potential harm to innocent civilians and humanitarian efforts through targeting specific entities, the disruptive effects of these sanctions could not come at a worse time for Lebanon’s cratering economy. The sanctioning of corrupt, Assad-linked, and Hezbollah-friendly Lebanese political and business entities will inadvertently contribute to Lebanon’s economic and political turmoil.
An Example of Targeted Sanctions: The Business of Fuel Smuggling
In its announcement of the Caesar Act, the State Department clearly stated, “this Act is meant to send a clear signal that no foreign business should enter into business with or otherwise enrich such a regime.” In addition, the announcement mentions several obvious sectors for targeting: “mandatory sanctions under the Caesar Act target foreign persons who facilitate the Assad regime’s acquisition of goods, services, or technologies that support the regime’s military activities as well as its aviation and oil and gas production industries.”
Targeting the oil and gas sector is noteworthy since the illegal flow of smuggled oil has been one of the most lucrative and active Lebanon-to-Syria illegal enterprises. One of the many scandals plaguing Lebanon is the widespread corruption within the oil and gas industry and the diversion of government procured oil, meant for domestic electricity production, smuggled to Syria.
Lebanese news and social media sites abound with reports and videos of Syrian-bound fuel trucks lined-up on the Lebanese side of the border, heading south to provide fuel to the Assad regime. These Lebanese companies are so unconcerned that they brazenly use their marked company trucks with the company logos in plain sight. One famous video shows lines of orange trucks from a very prominent, and FPM-connected, Lebanese oil company allegedly moving fuel to Syria in a steady, uninterrupted and seemingly unending stream.
According to a recent Lebanon 24 report, the volume of smuggled Lebanese diesel oil to Syria approaches the mark of 2 million liters per day, the equivalent of 730 million liters per year. This should be a prime target for sanctions under this Act, and these complicit politicians and oil companies should be the first to suffer the Caesar Act’s effects. They have openly supported a war criminal and stolen from their own people long enough.
For Lebanon: An Opportunity
As mentioned, the Caesar Act will, unfortunately, have an unintended consequence of exacerbating Lebanon’s ongoing political and economic crisis. Since October 2019, there have been mass protests across Lebanon, reflecting the Lebanese people’s discontent with their inept government, endemic corruption, and failing economy. Also since last October, the economy has crashed and International Monetary Fund and other support from the West hinge on a fundamental change to Lebanon’s political, financial, and political structure.
The Caesar Act puts additional international pressure on the current FPM-led government to reform or fall. With the impending effects of the Caesar Act as an impetus, this is an opportunity for Western institutions and the disgruntled Lebanese people to force real and immediate institutional reform from the Lebanese government. The businesses and political parties that have profited from support to Assad will be targeted, held accountable by the Caesar Act, and forced to end their corrupt and illegal activities which have directly contributed to Lebanon’s economic and financial disaster. It is long past due for them to be held accountable by the Lebanese people. Finally, with the looming sanctions on Hezbollah, this is an opportunity for the people of Lebanon to regain their sovereignty from the grip of a weakened Hezbollah.
Lebanon must get its house in order. The practice of turning a blind eye to those Lebanese entities that are complicit in the Assad regime’s war cannot continue. Caesar is coming to Lebanon and with it comes accountability and an opportunity for reform.
Michael D. Barbero is a retired US Army Lieutenant General who served 3 combat tours in Iraq including as the Senior NATO Commander in Iraq. He has testified before the US Congress on security issues in the Middle East and is currently involved in international consulting and business development.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Annahar’s position.