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While the Caesar Act and other statutory sanctions requirements do put some limits on the U.S. executive branch’s ability to lift sanctions on Syria, practically speaking, the U.S. president continues to have a degree of legal discretion to offer partial sanctions relief in exchange for policy concessions by the Syrian government. Such sanctions relief could take either the form of “small for small” confidence-building measures, in which the U.S. would offer specific, targeted sanctions relief in exchange for limited policy concessions; or “bigger for bigger” measures in which the U.S. would offer comparatively more sanctions relief in exchange for more significant concessions by the Syrian government. For the U.S., the fundamental question of sanctions relief remains one of U.S. policy: does the U.S. president view lifting sanctions on Syria as being in the U.S. national interest, or not? At present, President Donald Trump’s administration views continued aggressive sanctions on Syria as strongly in the U.S. national interest and thus appears substantially more likely to escalate sanctions on Syria than to consider options for sanctions relief.

The European Union Council has broad discretion to lift EU sanctions on Syria with the agreement of all EU member states; in practice, agreement between major EU powers tends to secure European Union-wide agreement on sanctions matters. In addition, European sanctions on Syria must be renewed annually, providing a regular mechanism for the European Union to evaluate and adjust sanctions, though in recent years the EU has renewed the sanctions without significant debate.

Given the Caesar Act’s imposition of U.S. secondary sanctions on Syria, most European multinationals will refrain from doing business with Syria that contravenes the Caesar Act as long as U.S. sanctions remain in place, even if the European Union suspends or lifts European sanctions on Syria.

The Carter Center Report

The U.S. has maintained sanctions against Syria since the 1970s. However, the majority of current U.S. sanctions on Syria were imposed in two broad phases: a first phase in the 2000s that U.S. policymakers stated was a response to Syrian support for terrorism, activities in Lebanon, and other Syrian government activities, and a second phase that started in 2011 and has continued to the present, that U.S. policymakers stated was a response to the Syrian civil war. The European Union began to impose sanctions starting in 2011 as Syria’s civil war broke out, and the EU has escalated sanctions in several stages since 2011. The United Nations has imposed a limited number of sanctions related to Syria, generally targeted at the Islamic State group.

The United States imposes both “primary” and “secondary” sanctions on Syria. “Primary sanctions” are sanctions that prohibit business by U.S. citizens and by U.S. companies (with exceptions for certain humanitarian relief work), and which prohibit financial transactions that touch the U.S. financial system and the sale of U.S.-made goods to Syria. Secondary sanctions, which the U.S. Congress expanded in late 2019 by passing the “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act,” (“Caesar Act”) are sanctions that seek to prohibit third-country transactions with Syria, such as certain categories of French, German, or Russian business with Syria.

U.S. primary sanctions amount to an embargo on almost all trade and financial ties between the U.S. and Syria, with limited exceptions. Principal categories of U.S. primary sanctions are:

  • A prohibition on U.S. foreign assistance to the Syrian government and U.S. opposition to international financial institution support for Syria.
  • A prohibition on U.S. arms trade with Syria.
  • A prohibition on the export or re-export of U.S. goods to Syria (with exceptions for certain categories of humanitarian aid, such as food and medicine).
  • A prohibition on the export of U.S. services to Syria.
  • A prohibition on U.S. importation of certain Syrian products, including oil.
  • Financial and investment restrictions on Syria that generally prohibit U.S. investment in Syria and U.S. financial transactions with Syria.
  • An asset freeze on Syrian government assets in the U.S. and prohibition on U.S. people and companies’ transacting or doing business with the government of Syria, including Syrian state-owned companies.
  • A range of targeted sanctions on various Syrian government officials, businesses, and entities that freeze assets in the U.S. and prohibit U.S. persons from doing business with them.
  • A ban on most Syrians’ traveling to the U.S.

The U.S. also imposes secondary sanctions designed to prohibit certain categories of third-country trade with Syria. U.S. secondary sanctions on Syria were comparatively limited until late 2019, when Congress passed the Caesar Act. However, secondary sanctions remain more limited than primary sanctions. Main categories of secondary sanctions are on:

  • Non-U.S. companies that support or engage in significant transactions with the Syrian government, including entities owned or controlled by the Syrian government.
  • Non-U.S. military contractors and paramilitary forces working for the Syrian government, the Russian government, and/or the Iranian government.
  • Non-U.S. companies that support or engage in significant transactions with sanctioned Syrian companies, individuals, or entities.
  • Non-U.S. companies that support Syrian government oil and gas production.
  • Non-U.S. companies that provide significant construction or engineering services to the government of Syria.
  • Non-U.S. companies that provide aircraft or spare parts for military use in Syria.
  • Non-U.S. companies that support Syria’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs.

The European Union started imposing sanctions on Syria in 2011 following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. EU sanctions on Syria are somewhat narrower than U.S. sanctions, limiting specific categories of trade and investment, and include extensive sanctions on the Syrian government and targeted sanctions against Syrian individuals and companies. EU sanctions, however, do not limit trade as extensively as U.S. sanctions do. In addition, the European Union does not impose secondary sanctions on third-country companies that do business in Syria; the EU only imposes primary sanctions on Syria. Principal categories of European sanctions on Syria include:

  • A prohibition on buying Syrian oil.
  • A prohibition on selling equipment to develop Syria’s oil industry (and associated services).
  • Restrictions on investments in Syria and limits on Syrian banks’ ability to operate in the EU.
  • An asset freeze on Syrian government assets in the EU and prohibition on EU people and companies’ transacting or doing business with the government of Syria, including many Syrian state-owned companies.
  • A range of targeted sanctions on various Syrian government officials, businesses, and entities that freeze assets in Europe and prohibit EU companies from doing business with them.

To date, the United Kingdom’s sanctions regime established post-Brexit effectively parallels the EU sanctions regime.

There are legal constraints on the U.S. executive branch in lifting some, but not all, U.S. sanctions on Syria. For sanctions enacted pursuant to the Caesar Act and certain other U.S. statutes, the executive branch must issue waivers and/or certify that Syria has met certain specified criteria prior to suspending or terminating the sanctions. The legal structure of waiver authorities in the Caesar Act and other relevant statutes, however, does provide the executive branch with a degree of flexibility to suspend sanctions should the president determine that doing so is in the U.S. national interest. That said, such suspensions generally are time-limited and would have to be renewed every 180 days, and the executive branch lacks the authority to fully terminate congressionally mandated sanctions unless it can certify that Syria has met certain criteria specified in statute. Furthermore, the requirement to issue waivers increases U.S. domestic political costs of suspending or easing sanctions. For sanctions that were imposed under executive branch authorities, rather than mandated by Congress, the executive branch retains broad discretion to suspend and terminate the sanctions.

While the Caesar Act and other statutory sanctions requirements do put some limits on the U.S. executive branch’s ability to lift sanctions on Syria, practically speaking, the U.S. president continues to have a degree of legal discretion to offer partial sanctions relief in exchange for policy concessions by the Syrian government. Such sanctions relief could take either the form of “small for small” confidence-building measures, in which the U.S. would offer specific, targeted sanctions relief in exchange for limited policy concessions; or “bigger for bigger” measures in which the U.S. would offer comparatively more sanctions relief in exchange for more significant concessions by the Syrian government. For the U.S., the fundamental question of sanctions relief remains one of U.S. policy: does the U.S. president view lifting sanctions on Syria as being in the U.S. national interest, or not? At present, President Donald Trump’s administration views continued aggressive sanctions on Syria as strongly in the U.S. national interest and thus appears substantially more likely to escalate sanctions on Syria than to consider options for sanctions relief.

The European Union Council has broad discretion to lift EU sanctions on Syria with the agreement of all EU member states; in practice, agreement between major EU powers tends to secure European Union-wide agreement on sanctions matters. In addition, European sanctions on Syria must be renewed annually, providing a regular mechanism for the European Union to evaluate and adjust sanctions, though in recent years the EU has renewed the sanctions without significant debate.

Given the Caesar Act’s imposition of U.S. secondary sanctions on Syria, most European multinationals will refrain from doing business with Syria that contravenes the Caesar Act as long as U.S. sanctions remain in place, even if the European Union suspends or lifts European sanctions on Syria.

U.S. and European Sanctions on Syria, 753 Kb

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