By THO Team Member, Hannah Jacobson
The Caesar Syria Protection act (Caesar Act) is the latest move by the US to facilitate an end to the ongoing war in Syria. Much like the roman ruler who shares its name, these sanctions are multifaceted and have long-term implications for both those in Syria and the international community at large.
Economic sanctions on Syria are far from a new development. Since 2011, the US, EU and other countries have restricted the foreign trade, transport, and investment as well as limited direct dealings with Syrian government officials. However, the extraterritorial nature of the Caesar Act makes it distinct from its predecessors. Under these sanctions, in addition to US nationals, all foreign persons who engage in the acquisition of goods, services, and technologies to Syria are included under the mandate. This also potentially includes companies engaging in reconstruction activities. Many within the international community have been critical of the US, viewing these sanctions as breaking from international norms or sovereignty. Traditionally, states only exercise their jurisdiction within their borders or overs its nationals who are in another state’s territory. The departure from these customs have led others to question the legality of the US sanctions under international law.
While the Caesar act is intended to promote public accountability for the autocracies committed by the Assad regime, such sanctions have the potential to push the suffering of the Syrian people to even greater heights. Currently 83% of the population live below the poverty line as defined by the Syrian government and 11 million are dependent upon humanitarian assistance. In practice, these sanctions further limit the supply of crucial resources including food, water, blankets, and other medical supplies. Access to resources have already been strained with humanitarian access to the Northwest region of being restricted to a single-entry point. Hostilities in this region have already resulted in massive displacement and the destruction of crucial infrastructure leaving many to take shelter in partially destroyed buildings. With widespread food insecurity, violence, and safe shelter, the reliance of many Syrians is already almost at its breaking point. Rather than inspire a social uprising, further restrictions to aid and other crucial resources may be too much and result in a resurgence of refugees seeking asylum in neighboring countries.
Turkey is one of the countries that would be the most impacted by an influx of Syrian refugees. At present hosts over 4 million refugees, 3.6 million of which are Syrian and the majority of are the result of the refugee crisis which began back in 2011. While the crisis is ongoing, Covid-19 and additional US sanctions further complicates Turkey’s foreign policy with Syria. Within Turkey, Syrian and other refugee populations are the most susceptible to the adverse effects of Covid-19. Many migrants live in intermixed urban areas with high population density. While Turkey has so far been relatively successful in their handling of the Covid crisis, refugee populations continue to be at risk. Lack of economic stability makes it a challenge to follow WHO safety guidelines.
As an emerging and export dependent economy, much of Turkey’s economic stability is contingent on the vitality of the global market. Many Syrian refugees support themselves through informal means of employment already associated with labor exploitation and poor wages. Without job security or financial resources, refugee populations are left few options other than continuously put themselves at risk in order to support a basic livelihood.
In addition, as has been seen with other countries, public sentiment towards refugees and immigrants within Turkey has grown increasingly negative. With economic instability and high unemployment rates, there is growing fear of impoverishment and being unable to provide for one’s family. This fear is often directed at those without natural citizenship who are seen as taking away opportunities. Without guarantees of economic improvement and stability, additional refugees seeking asylum in Turkey represents a potential challenge to their social stability. Given the already existing international implications of the Syrian refugee crisis, it is not farfetched to imagine an influx of refugees into Turkey influencing regional dynamics.
Since the refugee crisis, Turkey has repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with other countries' role in handling the millions fleeing from the conflict in Syria. Turkey’s general sentiment is that countries, particularly within the EU have not been contributing enough to help mitigate the crisis leaving Turkey to face the brunt of the issue. Over the past year tensions have manifested along the Greek border. In February Turkey announced that they would no longer prevent migrants from trying to reach Europe. The Turkish government encouraged immigrants to make their way to the frontier despite the closure of the Greek border. Such a move escalated tensions both between Greece and Turkey but also with the EU who recognized that Turkey was the gatekeeper against a European refugee crisis. While the EU has recently approved over $500 million in aid to help Turkey support their refugee populations, the EU-Turkey relationship remains tenuous.
The Caesar act will place additional pressure on the ongoing refugee crisis and has the potential to further exacerbate already existing tensions surrounding syrian refugees both within Turkey and their relations with neighboring countries. Without greater consideration and contingencies in place to address alternative outcomes, the caesar act could become a point of contention within US-Turkey bilateral relations. The US and their long standing relationship with the EU represent an additional dynamic potentially further complicating the situation. If nothing else these sanctions need to recognize the potential for another refugee crisis and provide a more comprehensive plan of action on how to address this reality as a global community in a manner that does not exacerbate global tensions and enables the Syrian people to thrive within their country.