December 2023 marks 44 years since the United States placed the Syrian Arab Republic on its inaugural list of state sponsors of terrorism after Washington failed in the wake of the 1973 War to woo President Hafez al-Assad away from Palestinian extremist groups and toward Arab-Israeli peace. As its support for Hezbollah and other US-designated terrorist organisations has grown, today Syria remains the state sponsor list’s only remaining founding member and is under a slew of additional sanctions and executive orders concerning its 29-year military occupation of Lebanon, which officially ended in 2005.
The al-Assad regime’s violent response to the 2011 Syrian uprising and war, including its use of chemical weapons and other strategic weapons on civilians and its atrocities committed against detainees, has brought US and international sanctions against al-Assad’s Syria to a whole other level. This can be seen in the implementation of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019 (the Caesar Act), which among other provisions contains extensive secondary or derivative sanctions on non-US entities facilitating transactions or activities related to reconstruction in Syria without a political settlement outlined under United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254.
As regional states welcome al-Assad’s Syria back to the “Arab fold” following the 19 May Arab Summit in Jeddah, it is important to examine the evolution of US sanctions against Syria, the Caesar Act’s critical role in that evolution, and the degree to which it limits any commitments from Arab capitals to normalise economic relations with the al-Assad regime. It is also necessary to review the potential effect of the Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act, which passed the US House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee by a near-unanimous vote on 16 May, expanding the extension of sanctions in the Caesar Act and extending the sanctions that are set to expire next year to 2032. In short, it seems unlikely Caesar will be going away anytime soon, and any effort by Arab states to entice al-Assad away from his current policies through an expansion in economic ties will be met with significant sanctions risk.
Andrew Tabler is the Martin J. Gross Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute and former director for Syria on the National Security Council. Matthew Zweig is the senior director of policy at FDD Action and a former senior sanctions advisor in the Office of the U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement.