Politics

Caesar Act steps up pressure on Syrian regime

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo

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A Syrian child receives treatment after inhaling chemicals during a Syrian regime attack on the town of Douma. The Caesar Act seeks to prosecute those behind this incident as a war crime. [Photo courtesy of Syrian Civil Defence]

The Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act of 2019 paves the way for the prosecution of the Syrian president and his aides and supporters for the crimes they have committed against the Syrian people, Syrian affairs experts said.

The implementation of this US legislation, which has been incorporated into the National Defence Authorisation Act for Fiscal Year 2020, also will stymie foreign meddling, by Iran and Russia in particular, they told Diyaruna.

The Caesar Act, effective mid-June, penalises companies worldwide that deal with the regime of Bashar al-Assad and blocks US reconstruction aid until perpetrators of abuses in Syria's war are brought to justice, AFP reported.

The law was named after a former Syrian military photographer, who goes by the pseudonym Caesar. He fled Syria in 2013 with 55,000 images of brutality in Syrian prisons, and appeared before US Congress in 2014.

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An elderly man leaves his home in Idlib, that suffered heavy damage in a Syrian regime air raid. [Photo courtesy of Syrian Civil Defence]

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This unexploded 'barrel bomb', seen in Idlib province, was ejected by Syrian regime aircraft. [Photo courtesy of Syrian Civil Defence]

"Caesar" made his latest appearance before Congress in March, pressing the US and the international community to hold al-Assad's regime to account.

"This law is a powerful message to all who support the al-Assad regime that the time for accountability and justice is coming," he said at the time.

International acknowledgement

According to Syrian lawyer Bashir al-Bassam, the most important aspect of the Caesar Act is the international acknowledgement of the bodily harm, executions and torture which still occur in the Syrian regime's prisons.

These crimes, and the regime's general failure to uphold the rights of Syrian citizens, is why the Syrian people revolted against it in 2011, he told Diyaruna.

"The regime still has not learned from its mistakes," he said.

This legislation is important because it opens the door to holding those responsible for crimes against civilians to account, he said, and includes provisions of support for those who come forward with evidence of such crimes.

It offers recognition to the tens of thousands of Syrians who were tortured to death in detention centres, and for others whose deaths can be ruled as war crimes as they were committed during military operations, al-Bassam said.

Dozens of Syrian human rights activists are preparing documents pertaining to such crimes, in advance of legal proceedings, he added.

The implementation of the US legislation would spell the beginning of the end of the Syrian crisis and the toppling of the ruling regime, said journalist Ala Mahmoud, who specialises in international law and policies.

"This is because the legislation does not have a loophole the regime can use to escape accountability," she told Diyaruna, "whether through those who support it militarily or through how it receives logistical and financial support."

She noted that countries such as Iran and Russia will see their roles in Syria undermined, especially since both countries are trying to win reconstruction projects and finance others that were halted by the war.

Both countries intervened in the conflict under false pretexts, she said, claiming they were supporting the Syrian people and protecting religious facilities.

They also claimed they were only sending "experts" rather than fighters to Syria, which Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is still insisting is the case, despite evidence to the contrary, she said.

Paving way for accountability

For Wael al-Sharimi, who teaches international criminal law at Cairo University, the Caesar Act signals the beginning of the end of the Syrian regime.

It paves the way for the prosecution of the Syrian president, he told Diyaruna, along with his Syrian and foreign aides and partners.

Al-Sharimi stressed that none of the international powers supporting al-Assad are willing to enter the labyrinth of accountability at the present time, if they are found in violation of the legislation.

This specifically means Russia and Iran, he noted, as the legislation will put an end to their interference and support of the Syrian regime and to the agenda being implemented by the IRGC.

Iran is already reeling from a "maximum pressure" US sanctions campaign, and does not need additional problems, he said.

Also affected will be all IRGC-aligned factions in Lebanon, Iraq and other countries, in addition to those financed by Russia that support Syrian regime forces in certain areas, particularly in the southern part of Syria, he said.

The Syrian regime on June 3rd condemned the new financial sanctions that are being imposed via the Caesar Act, arguing they will increase hardships in a country deep in economic crisis, AFP reported.

After nine years of war, Syria is in the thick of an economic crisis compounded by a coronavirus lockdown and a dollar liquidity crisis in neighbouring Lebanon.

The UN estimated in 2018 that the conflict in Syria had caused nearly $400 billion in war-related destruction.

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