On Tuesday, New York Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel, as one of his first orders of business as the freshly minted chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. The legislation would impose sweeping sanctions on the governments of Syria, Russia, and Iran for the next five years unless they comply with a series of highly unrealistic demands that would effectively amount to a forfeiture of sovereignty by the Syrian government.
Engel’s sponsorship of the bill is hardly surprising given his record. One of the most reliable allies of Washington’s various pro-war lobbies, he has a long track record as one of the most hawkish members of the Democratic caucus. He enthusiastically supported the invasion of Iraq, opposed the Iranian nuclear deal, and uncritically backs Israeli belligerence at every turn.
Writing in The Progressive, Professor Steve Zunes rightly observes that it was “nothing short of a betrayal of the Democratic leadership to turn [the House Foreign Affairs Committee] over to someone so far to the right.”
The first iteration of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, introduced and passed in a lame-duck session in 2016, called for the Obama administration to effectively draw up plans for “the establishment and maintenance of a no-fly zone over part of all of Syria.” The current version imposes sanctions on any actor engaging in “significant financial, material, or technological support to, or knowingly engages in a significant transaction with” the Syrian government or the governments of Russia and Iran in Syria.
Another difference between then and now is that the original act had to go through the committee process before being discharged for a floor vote. But Engel’s bill will bypass the the committee process today (and therefore any semblance of a debate) and instead go straight to the House floor for a vote as part of the House’s “suspension calendar,” which is reserved for supposedly uncontroversial House business.
Critics, such as the Friends Committee on National Legislation and Just Foreign Policy, warn that the bill is a thinly veiled attempt to thwart President Trump’s plan to withdraw combat troops from Syria.
Others, such as the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), say that provisions of the bill could be used by the Trump administration to further unravel the Iranian nuclear agreement. According to NIAC, the bill could lead Iran to “ramp up its nuclear activities” as well as “complicate any efforts by a successor administration to bring the United States back into compliance with the JCPOA.”
Ironically, Engel’s bill could end up sanctioning the Kurds, over whose security Democrats have voiced concern in recent weeks. As has been widely reported, the Kurds are currently coordinating militarily with Syrian-government forces who have retaken northeast Syria as a buffer against Turkey. Will Engel’s bill end up further hurting our erstwhile Kurdish allies?
Sanctions have a long history of failure, yet remain a favorite tool of the US foreign-policy establishment. Summing up the conventional view, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News this past November that, with regard to the new round of sanctions the administration imposed on Iran, “I am very confident the sanctions…will have the intended effect: to alter Iran’s behavior…. That’s our expectation.”
But as Iran expert Dr. Trita Parsi observes, the push to sanction Iran during the Obama administration didn’t force Iran to the negotiating table as is so often claimed. Instead, according to Parsi, “much to Washington’s dismay, the Iranians accelerated their nuclear activities.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s chief of staff told Parsi, “Our strategy was to break the mentality of the other side by showing them that pressure wouldn’t work…so we escalated our nuclear activities to show what pressure would produce.”
As the University of Chicago’s Robert Pape points out in his seminal 1997 paper “Why Economic Sanctions Do Not Work,” the principal reason that sanctions fail is that “modern states are not fragile. Nationalism often makes states and societies willing to endure considerable punishment rather than abandon their national interests. States involved in coercive disputes often accept high costs, including civilian suffering, to achieve their objectives…”
Given all this, House Democrats such as Engel might cut back on the virtue-signaling and instead concentrate their efforts on supporting diplomatic efforts to finally put an end to the crisis in Syria.