US Caesar Act could bleed Lebanon for years to come

Strike up a conversation about the general situation in Lebanon today and at some point, in an exasperated voice, the phrase will be uttered: “How much more can this country take?”

Lebanon has been beset by disruptions and bad decisions that have spawned a political crisis, widespread social unrest and plunged its economy deeper into crisis.

While many of Lebanon’s plagues are rooted in years of financial mismanagement and a culture of corruption among the country’s elites, some are beyond Beirut’s control – like the coronavirus pandemic and the war next door in Syria.

Now, a new set of wide-ranging United States sanctions threaten to add to Lebanon’s troubles. Analysts warn that the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act could foster greater political instability and conflict in Lebanon over the divisive issue of ties with Syria and Iran-backed Hezbollah’s outsized role in the country.

“I don’t think Lebanon will succeed in mitigating the impact of this legislation. It’s part of an increasing pressure campaign on Syria, Iran and its prime proxy in the region, Hezbollah,” Hilal Khashan, a professor of political studies at the American University of Beirut told Al Jazeera.

“The internal situation in Lebanon is heading towards some fragmentation, and I don’t think a full-blown conflict with Israel is out of the question, given growing US efforts to decisively encircle Iran and its allies.”

Noble goals

The Caesar Act was conceived as a tool to pressure and sanction those who aid the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – most notably Russia and Iran, the countries credited with turning the tide of Syria’s nine-year war in al-Assad’s favour.

The act is named after a Syrian military photographer who leaked some 55,000 pictures of people who were systematically tortured and killed by al-Assad’s regime, and aims to punish and pressure the regime, stop human rights abuses and push for a political transition.

The first round of sanctions announced this week target individuals within Syria including al-Assad, members of his family, officials and business people tied to the regime. It also targets any foreign person or entity that provides aid or material support to al-Assad’s government or works with specific Syrian industries like construction and the energy sector.

“The  Act seeks to deny the Assad regime the financial resources that his regime uses to fuel its campaign of violence and destruction that has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians,” a US State Department official who asked not to be identified told Al Jazeera. The Act “is meant to send a clear signal that no external actor should enter into business with or otherwise enrich such a regime”.

That targeting of foreign entities could scupper long-held hopes by Lebanese politicians and companies of participating in Syria’s lucrative reconstruction.

The administration of US President Donald Trump also promised to step up sanctions on Hezbollah and its affiliates in Lebanon, part of a so-called “maximum pressure” campaign aimed at Iran.

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