The Caesar Act: Why Economic Sanctions Fail

Much has been said and written in recent weeks about The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, also known as the Caesar Act, which came into effect this week. The intention of the law is it to punish Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime for committing crimes against humanity that have been documented with images and testimonies of victims who experienced this hell first hand. Simply put, the Caesar Act imposes sanctions on everyone who provides supports or does business with Bashar Al-Assad and his regime.

The Lebanese people are divided over the new law. Enthusiastic supporters hope that the Caesar Act is a chance for Lebanon to rid itself its problems - primarily Hezbollah –as they anticipate the sanctions on Syria will strike the militia financially, therefore weakening group and pushing its proponents to turn against it. As for those against the Act, they say that they are fighting the mother of all battles against the American "imperialism" and "Zionism". In fact, neither side is right.

The US has a history of imposing sanctions on regimes in the region, but revisiting these examples reveals that such policies do not result in winners or losers.

A 13-year international embargo was imposed on Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The Iraqis have suffered enormously under these sanctions which have deprived them of food and medicine, resulting in the death of 1.5 million children from starvation, an acute shortage of medicine and basic necessities. This embargo did not stop Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship and or prevent it from crushing its opposition. Nor did it prevent Saddam and his entourage from smoking luxurious Cuban cigars while his people starved. Even 17 years after the fall of Saddam, Iraq has not yet found its way to stability and prosperity. On the contrary, the country is slipping towards more violence and is facing major economic crises.

As for the Islamic Republic of Iran, it has been subject to sanctions since 1979, the year of the Islamic Revolution and the takeover of the United States embassy in Tehran. Sanctions increased with the Khomeini-Saddam war and peaked with the development of Tehran’s nuclear weapons. Decades of sanctions impoverished Iran and its people and destroyed its economy, but it did not prevent the regime from oppressing and killing people - like what happened during the Green Revolution which former president Obama turned his back on and stood against the principles he had preached throughout his presidency. At that time, Obama’s only concern was to sign a nuclear agreement with the those torturing the Iranian people.

Sudan and North Korea have also been subject to harsh sanctions that failed to bring about positive political changes.

American sanction policies aim to discourage dictatorial regimes from persistently killing their people or supporting terrorism outside their borders, but these sanctions primarily serve the strategies and interests of countries that impose those sanctions.

Those in support and those against sanctions fail to take into consideration a fundamental matter: long-lasting change can only come from within, and external military intervention can only make temporary shifts. For instance, the Israeli invasion in 1982 and the occupation of Iraq by the American-led coalition forces in 2003 are both examples of nations in that have greatly deteriorated after the withdrawal of armed forces.

Returning to the Caesar Act, its impact will surely be equally as severe for Syria and Lebanon whose already devastated economies will suffer further setbacks. It is inevitable that during the sanctions period there will be no economic growth factors or investments coming from abroad, unemployment will increase among youth, crime rates may rise, and smuggling and other illegal activities will flourish. In addition, repression will increase and any criticism or protest will be annihilated.

If it is possible to predict what may occur in Syria and Lebanon, given the previous results of such sanctions, then it’s conceivable to say that the sanctions will remain for many years, and Assad will remain the president of Syria and the Secretary-General of Hezbollah will continue to control Lebanon. The citizens of both countries may adapt to the poor living conditions and suggest solutions to prevent famine while awaiting an event that may shift the situation. Such a transition will be temporary until further crises emerge.

Unfortunately, this is what happens to societies where change does not come from within.