Joel D. Rayburn
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Levant Affairs and Special Envoy for Syria
US Department of State
Arab Center Washington DC
Presenter and Reporter
Al Araby Television Network
About the Webinar
On July 22, 2020, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) hosted an event titled “US Policy toward Syria after the Caesar Act.” The featured speaker was Joel D. Rayburn, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Levant Affairs and Special Envoy for Syria at the US Department of State. Radwan Ziadeh, Senior Fellow at ACW, served as commentator and Reema Abuhamdieh, Presenter and Reporter at Al Araby Television Network, was the moderator.
Joel Rayburn described the implementation of the Caesar Act as the first of a continuing campaign of sanctions that will be carried out in tranches, with the first sanctions imposed on June 17. He said the effort includes reaching out to Syrian communities and those in the region to clarify the principles of the law as well as its exceptions for organizations and international NGOs that deal with humanitarian concerns. To that end, he affirmed that the United States is making every effort to ascertain that sanctions do not result in shortages of food and medicine for the Syrian people. Another part of the act’s implementation is for the United States to engage with other countries and entities in the region to explain the dangers of doing business with the Syrian regime. He said that the Caesar Act has a “focus on the regime and its killing machine” and comprises a lengthy list of potential targets, with an indefinite timeline for enacting the sanctions—that “the summer of Caesars is not over.”
Rayburn reiterated that in the long run, the purpose of these economic and political sanctions is to end the conflict in Syria and the suffering of the people by pressuring the Bashar al-Assad regime and its allies to accept a political solution. He said that the Caesar Act was almost unanimously supported in Congress and represents the greatest level of consensus among leaders in the US government. At the same time, he continued, this law “is not a magic wand”; there has to be coordinated political, economic, diplomatic, and military pressure from many other areas to make it effective. Such efforts should emanate from the Syrian population as well as from the international community’s efforts to isolate Assad and his allies.
As for the economic situation in Lebanon, Rayburn rejected the notion that the Lebanese are paying the price for the sanctions against Syria. “The Lebanese should be happy that there is this pressure on the Assad regime,” he said, since this will mean an end to the latter’s assassinations of Lebanese leaders and a halt to the smuggling of dollars and fuel by the government in Syria. Rayburn said that Washington has been urging Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab to make progress on talks with the IMF regarding urgent reforms and the country’s debt crisis. He added that the law has disrupted the systems through which Hezbollah generates cash, limiting the group’s access to dollars and euros.
Rayburn asserted that the United States wants to see Iran’s military and its proxies exit Syria; their presence is not for any legitimate purpose, he said, and their goal is to make Syria a garrison from which to launch attacks in the region. He relayed that Washington has urged the Russians to depart from a policy of supporting the Assad regime’s military solution to the conflict but rather to push him toward a political solution.
Asked about overall US interests in Syria, Rayburn said that the fact that international terrorism has had a safe haven in the country has increased the concerns of the United States and its allies. The Assad regime, he continued, is a proliferator and user of weapons of mass destruction so it is vital for regional and international security and stability to curb its behavior. In addition, Assad’s regime has been a destabilizing element in the whole region, with a grand strategy of hosting terrorist opposition to every neighbor. “They are the arsonist and the fireman,” he concluded.
In his commentary, Radwan Ziadeh stated that the Caesar Act sends a message to regional powers that there will be consequences if they take steps to rehabilitate and open talks with the Assad government despite its ongoing crimes against humanity. As for the Syrian economy, he said the Syrian pound is now in free fall and the economy’s woes should be blamed on the regime and not on the Caesar Act, which is adding pressure for political purposes at this time.
Unfortunately, Ziadeh said, the first round of sanctions has not succeeded in stopping the Assad regime’s atrocities, as evidenced by its continued use of barrel bombs in Syrian cities such as Idlib. They also did not change the voting behavior of Russia at the United Nations, as it vetoed the continuation of cross border humanitarian operations. Ziadeh added that the situation in the northern part of Syria is dire for the refugees; they face shortages of shelter and a collapse of the medical system as they confront the coronavirus.
Ziadeh asked, is the US State Department taking an active role in seeking a solution to end the conflict? Will it pursue alternatives to the Astana talks that were started by Turkey, Russia, and Iran? Will the upcoming Geneva talks provide tangible negotiations? Could the opposition be promoted as an alternative to the Assad government? He said that Iran and Russia have lost all credibility among the Syrian people as the two countries’ public statements about supporting a political solution contradict their actual behavior on the ground. Ziadeh expressed alarm that in the recent Syrian elections, candidates from Iranian militias were put forth. He believed that Iran’s endgame in Syria is what it already has in Lebanon: a pliant government that bends to its wishes.