On Wednesday, June 17, the Caesar Act, a bipartisan US law designed to punish any person or company that assists or supports the Syrian regime, came into force. It is feared that Lebanon, or at least some Lebanese personalities, may face sanctions under this law. Although the normalization of relations between the two countries has not exceeded calls made by certain political parties, it is a fact that Lebanese ministers have visited Damascus several times. Also, the director general of Public Security, General Abbas Ibrahim, has made several round trips between Beirut and Damascus to resolve various issues between the two countries. Other more informal ties link Lebanon to its neighbor: smuggling is active at the border, especially of essential supplies such as fuel and flour, and has regularly made headlines and sparked controversy. The “flight” of dollars from Lebanon to Syria is also a matter of political quarrel, while Lebanon is facing a serious economic crisis that resulted in particular in a scarcity of US banknotes on the market. What political consequences may the entry into force of the Caesar Act have on Lebanon, beyond possible economic impacts?
“There is no immediate intention in Washington to target Lebanon as such through this law,” said a Lebanese source in contact with US political circles. “Until now, Lebanese-US relations have been good. Despite its position regarding Hezbollah, the United States does not react to the presence of this party in the government. If it wanted to harm Lebanon, it would have done so already, but this is not the case . Even aid to the army has never stopped.”
However, “the focus will be on smuggling fuel to Syria. What is the logic of subsidizing fuel in Lebanon and letting it be smuggled into Syria at the subsidized price?” the source said, adding that it would be in the Lebanese state’s best interest to be firm in its fight against smuggling.
The Lebanese diplomacy, the source said, should be proactive and not just reactive. Hence, the more the Lebanese government displays a position that represents only of the Lebanese state, the more it will spare the country from possible repercussions of the Caesar. “On the other hand, if Lebanon’s official position is patterned on the one of Hezbollah, it will expose the country to possible consequences,” including sanctions, the source said. The prospect of normalization with the Syrian regime, advocated by some Lebanese officials, was compromised with the implementation of the Caesar Act, he added.
Requests for Exceptions
Mohammad Obeid, an analyst and former official with the Amal Movement, said he believes that Lebanon “will be very aggrieved if it abides by this law to the letter, as it seems to be the case with US pressure exerted on it.” Obeid argued that “Syria is important to Lebanon because it is the only country with which it shares land borders. Iraq, Turkey and even Syria have other options. Jordan has already asked the United States for exceptions in its relations with Syria. Lebanon, on the other hand, does not seem ready to do the same.” Lebanon, he added, will clearly be in the crosshairs of the Americans who will want to make sure that there is no leak of dollars into Syria.
But when it comes to official relations with Syria, Obeid does not see much change.“I have confirmation from the Syrian authorities themselves that no real effort to normalize relations was made by Lebanon in recent years,” he said. “Despite all the statements, Lebanese officials are too cautious about venturing into an opening towards the Syrian regime. They fear in particular sanctions that may affect them or affect some of their relatives.”
“We have recently heard declarations in favor of normalizing these relations, coming from the camp of President Michel Aoun and the president of the Free Patriotic Movement, Gebran Bassil, as well as from Prime Minister Hassan Diab and Hezbollah,” an informed source said. “The first three have given up on this possibility in the face of the US pressure – a message to this effect was delivered by US Ambassador Dorothy Shea to President Aoun himself during their meeting last week. Only Hezbollah is likely to challenge the US demands.”
Indeed, if the Lebanese authorities do not venture towards the normalization of relations with neighboring Syria, what will happen to Hezbollah, whose armed presence is notorious in that country? “I don’t think there will be any significant consequences for Hezbollah, since no one would dare block the roads it uses” to transport men and equipment to Syria, Obeid said.
Sanctions against Lebanese Expatriates?
The analyst said he feared that the Caesar Act may eventually affect the people of both countries far more than politicians.“Despite all the crises in Lebanon, the government and politicians in general give the impression that they want to ensure their survival more than work for the general interest of the country, preferring, for example, tribal reconciliations to diplomatic efforts that may avoid the worst pitfalls in Lebanon,” he said.
According to the political sources, some Lebanese officials now fear being the target of US sanctions under this law. But according to a well-informed source, the Americans may favor a strategy of tightening the noose. Instead of directly targeting Lebanese politicians, it is their relatives, especially those in the diaspora and punishable by the Caesar Act, who should, at first and perhaps even very quickly, be worried.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 17th of June)