Moderator: Thank you. Good afternoon from the U.S. Department of State’s Brussels Media Hub. I would like to welcome all participants to today’s telephonic press briefing on the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. Today we are very pleased to be joined by Joel Rayburn, Deputy Assistant Secretary and Special Envoy for Syria in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. We will begin with opening remarks from Deputy Assistant Secretary Rayburn and then we will turn to your questions. We will do our best to get to as many as possible in the time that we have today, which is approximately 30 minutes.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I’ll turn it over to Deputy Assistant Secretary Rayburn. Please go ahead.
DAS Rayburn: Thank you. I appreciate everyone being with us today. Just a few minutes ago, Secretary Michael Pompeo released a statement announcing that today the State Department and the Treasury Department are continuing the United States sanctions campaign against the Assad regime by releasing 14 new designations under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act and other authorities. This is a campaign that began last month with the first round of Caesar Act designations on June 17th. I want to highlight that today, within the United States Government, we have named today’s tranche of designations the Hama and Maarat Al-Numan sanctions, and these names are meant to memorialize the victims of two of the Assad regime’s most notorious atrocities, both of which occurred in this week in 2011 and 2019, respectively.
Nine years ago, Bashar al-Assad’s troops carried out a brutal siege of the city of Hama, killing scores of peaceful protesters in a shocking sign of what was to come. And this week one year ago, the Assad regime and its allies bombed a busy marketplace in Maarat Al-Numan, killing 42 innocent Syrians.
The Department of State and the Department of Treasury together are committed to increasing the economic and financial pressure on the Assad regime, and one of the ways we are doing this is through our various sanctions regimes, to include the Syria – the Caesar Act, which was signed into law by the President in December 2019. As you have seen by our announcement on June 17th and this morning, we have now designated since June 17th more than 50 of Bashar al-Assad’s key supporters and their businesses, as well as some key military units that act either in or on behalf of the Syrian regime.
Regardless of whether these actors are designated pursuant to the Caesar Act itself or under other executive orders, we view them all as in-line – all these designations, I should say – as in-line with the goals of the Caesar Act given that the legislation imposes sanctions on anyone who engages in significant business with people who are sanctioned with respect to Syria – in other words, secondary sanctions. This steady drumbeat of designations on persons or entities that support the Assad regime will continue until Bashar al-Assad and his regime cease obstructing a peaceful political resolution of the conflict, as called for by UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
The Caesar 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, and it’s meant to send a clear signal that no external actor should enter into business with or otherwise enrich such a regime.
None of our Syria sanctions targets the humanitarian sector nor the legitimate trade of food or medicine that the Syrian people need or that regional neighbors export to the benefit of the Syrian people. We have clear waivers and general licenses in place that support the efforts of the humanitarian sector. And as we have also said in the past, the Caesar Act sanctions are not directed at harming Lebanon’s economy or the Lebanese people, and we believe they will not have a significant impact on legitimate economic activity in Lebanon.
Today’s State Department designations highlight the corrupt duplicity of the Assad regime. We have designated Bashar al-Assad’s barbarous First Division of the Syrian Arab Army. And instead of protecting the Syrian people, the First Division and other units of the Syrian military have attacked civilians with ruthless disregard for human life, and at the same time some of these military entities have developed extensive networks to divert assistance away from the Syrian people, to impose taxes on all goods, and, put simply, to enrich themselves off the misery of the Syrian people, and the First Division is certainly a prime example of that kind of behavior.
Today the State Department also designated Bashar al-Assad’s adult son Hafez Bashar al-Assad. The Assad and Akhras families should not enjoy the right to do business with anyone involved in the U.S. or EU financial sectors, or consider visiting the U.S. or Europe, while they arbitrarily detain, torture, and murder thousands of civilians.
And with that, I’m happy to take your questions. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you very much for those remarks, DAS Rayburn. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. We are going to start with a question that was submitted to us in advance. This is from Subhi Franjieh with Al Arabi Al-Jadeed newspaper in Turkey, and the question is: “How do you view the sanctions’ effect on the Syrian regime and its supporters so far? And to what extent can these sanctions push the regime to engage in the peace process in the future?”
DAS Rayburn: We think of course it’s early days to see the overall effect of the sanctions, but we do believe that the sanctions under the Caesar Act are already having an effect on the thinking of those inside the regime and those who are supporters of the Assad regime. We do believe that they are getting the message loud and clear that these economic sanctions will continue until they accede to a political solution, as called for by UNSCR 2254.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much. I see we have a question from Andrew England with the Financial Times. Please go ahead.
Question: Yeah, hi, thanks very much. The UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus over a year ago. What level of business are you seeing between the UAE, which is an important U.S. ally, and Syria, and does that concern you? And then to talk about secondary sanctions, what about the assets of sanctioned individuals who have bank accounts and et cetera and businesses in the UAE, and will you start targeting banks who do business with these sanctioned individuals outside of Syria?
DAS Rayburn: Well, I would just say that there’s no – there’s no exemption based on where people reside. There’s no exemption to the Caesar Act based on where people reside. And we have been – we have been sending very strong messages through diplomatic channels, and now obviously in our public statements, to tell our friends that everyone should respect the Caesar Act, the provisions in the Caesar Act. We can make no exceptions. And we’ve also urged our friends in many places around the world to wind down their business if they are involved with sanctioned individuals and entities or those that are likely to be sanctioned, and to not put us in the position of having to sanction them instead of spending our time sanctioning the Syrian regime and its associates. We’ve made very clear that we will not hold back from doing that, but we’ve really urged everyone not to put us in that position.
So far, we think that the sanctions are having a chilling effect on what was expected to be outside investment coming into Damascus, and we are – we are watchful for any such violations, and we will enforce the provisions in the Caesar Act no matter upon whom.
Question: Can I follow up? Am I allowed to follow up?
Moderator: Sure, go ahead.
Question: Thank you very much. You mentioned that you’ve already been discussing this with other jurisdictions and allies. Has there been any tangible impact? Have bank accounts been closed? Have banks or businesses or governments in other jurisdictions – I’m particularly thinking the UAE – taken any action that you can make us aware of?
DAS Rayburn: Well, I think – I think the thing that we would look for most is, has the investment happened? I mean the investment that I think people were expecting to come, I mean, not just from the Gulf region but from elsewhere. And it’s not materializing in the way that the Assad regime and its friends had hoped it would, and we think the Caesar Act and the other authorities that we’ve been able to – that we’ve demonstrated we will enforce have a big part in that.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much for that. We have another question submitted to us in advance. This is from Charbel Barakat with Aljarida newspaper in Kuwait. The question is: “The comprehensive military agreement between Iran and Syria violated the UN arms embargo on Iran as well as the Caesar Act. Will the U.S. allow such agreement between Syria and Iran? What are you going to do to stop it?”
DAS Rayburn: Well, it’s very clear. Iran’s only contributions to Syria – the Iranian regime’s only contributions to Syria so far have been violence and instability. And it’s not just that such activity, such military aid to the Assad regime, violates the Caesar Act; it’s pledged to – the Iranian regime’s pledge to export military equipment to Syria is in blatant defiance of the UN arms embargo under UN Security Council Resolution 2231, and it’s a further demonstration of why we in the United States think it’s an imperative that the Security Council must act to extend the arms embargo on Iran.
Iranian regime support to the Assad regime has enabled Assad to commit mass atrocities against the Syrian people, it’s prolonged what is a brutal, needless war, and it’s contributed to the deaths of more than half a million people and the displacement of 11 million more Syrians. If Iran were truly concerned about the wellbeing and safety of the Syrian people, the Iranian regime would support the UN-led Syria political process under UNSCR 2254. The Iranian regime would withdraw the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Hizballah, and other Iranian-backed terrorist forces that are under Iranian regime command from the entirety of Syria, and would embrace a political solution rather than a brutal military victory.
So it’s certainly not constructive for the Iranian regime to be seeking to deepen its military involvement in Syria through a military agreement with the Assad regime.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much for that. Our next question comes to us from Joyce Karam with The National newspaper. Please go ahead.
Question: Yes, hi. If you can elaborate on the Lebanon part. Does Wassim al-Qattan have any investment or links in Lebanon? And on that same topic, the Lebanese Government seems to be seeking exemptions for the Caesar Act when it comes to electricity imports from Syria. Is that something that the U.S. is willing to consider? Thank you.
DAS Rayburn: Okay, for Wassim Qattan, any specific Lebanese involvement, I don’t have that, Joyce. I can – I can speak with the Treasury Department and get you a detailed answer on that. I know that the – I know the companies that we designated today that Wassim Qattan is involved with, whether he has any other overlapping interests maybe in companies that are not his own, I would have to – I would have to check on.
In terms of – in terms of the Lebanese Government and any requests for exemptions, of course we have an established process to review requests for exemptions or licenses. The – we are looking at a number of those from different directions, and we haven’t made a decision on those. I would say that the bar would be very high for us to consider allowing a waiver or a license for activity that significantly benefited the Assad regime. We also – in terms of Lebanon’s electricity situation, as I’ve pointed out in the past, the Assad regime is not the answer to Lebanon’s electricity difficulties. We know those electricity difficulties in Lebanon are extensive, but also, I mean, the Lebanese electricity sector, I think everyone recognizes that it’s going to have to undergo some significant head-to-toe reform if it’s to be put in a position to deliver basic electricity needs to the Lebanese people.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much for that answer. Our next question was submitted to us in advance from Khadija Habib with Asharq News in the UAE. The question is: “How will the U.S. administration deal with Russia in light of its refusal of the sanctions imposed on Syria, and are you having talks with Moscow about this? And in light of the multiple sanctions imposed on Syria, how will Caesar sanctions affect the Syrian regime without harming the Syrian people?”
DAS Rayburn: Well, let’s – to answer the latter question first. What’s harming the Syrian people, overwhelmingly, is the – is Bashar al-Assad and his regime’s atrocities against the Syrian people, not sanctions. And the sanctions that are being imposed on the Assad regime are actually meant to protect the Syrian people by trying to defer Bashar al-Assad – deter Bashar al-Assad and his friends from carrying out the atrocities against the Syrian people. But let’s be plain: the author of the Syrian people’s misery is Bashar al-Assad, that overwhelmingly he and his regime are to blame for the more than nine years of attacks that they have carried out against the Syrian people.
Now, we on the U.S. side, and I know our European allies are the same, we are conscientious about the suffering of the Syrian people, and that is why the Caesar Act has already written into it, in the law, the exemptions for humanitarian activity, for agricultural products and medical products and so on, so that those can continue to flow to the Syrian people in spite of the Assad regime’s behavior toward the Syrian people.
Now, concerning – so in other words, it’s a lie that the regime and its friends are promulgating that sanctions are the cause of the misery inside Syria right now. Very clearly, it’s Bashar al-Assad’s choices and the behavior of his regime. Since – Bashar al-Assad, since April 2019, made the decision to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a campaign to attack the people of Idlib instead of using that money to provide basic necessities for the Syrian people. That’s where the resources have gone, in addition to – we know – the vast corruption that takes place inside the Syrian regime, which diverts aid away from the Syrian people, which attempts to move money illicitly and to do it – have illicit business empires, many of which we’re trying to shut down, both in the past and now. That’s why there are shortages inside Syria. It’s the regime, it’s Bashar al-Assad who is the author of all this.
And the first aspect of the question, of how will we deal with Russia in light of the sanctions. We are in – we are in very close consultation with our Russian counterparts all the time, and we continue to urge them to use the influence that they have on the Assad regime – and we believe that that influence is quite extensive – to use that influence to press the Assad regime to accede to UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and to a political solution to the Syrian conflict.
Moderator: Thank you very much for that. Our next question comes to us from Laurie Mylroie with Kurdistan 24. Please go ahead.
Question: Hi, thanks very much for doing this. Do you see any issues in this context in the Iraqi dealings with Syria, whether the Iraqi Government, the private sector, or pro-Iranian elements in Iraq?
DAS Rayburn: I’m sorry, Laurie, what do you mean? Do we see any implications? I —
Question: Are Iraqis going to be affected by these sanctions? Are they dealing with Syria in a way that is illegal, in your judgment?
DAS Rayburn: I think – so the answer is that we have seen for a long time the Iraqi militias, the Iraqi militant groups that are sponsored by the Iranian regime, have been dealing with the Syrian regime in a way that would clearly violate both the letter and the spirit of the Caesar Act as well as UN Security Council resolutions. So the answer is yes, there is – there is some of that – there is some of that activity that goes on back and forth, and the Caesar Act is a tool that we will look at to try to deter that activity.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much. Our next question comes to us from Dmitry Kirsanov with the TASS News Agency. Please go ahead.
Question: Hi, can you hear me?
DAS Rayburn: Yes.
Question: Thank you so much for doing the call, Mr. Secretary. Good morning. I wanted to ask if the U.S. administration plans to intensify its diplomatic engagement with – with all partners, essentially, to look for that political solution that you mentioned before; or, alternatively, you are going to only intensify the sanctions – you’re going to only strengthen the sanctions regime as – and use it as the only tool in your toolbox?
DAS Rayburn: The sanctions, the U.S. sanctions, the intention of them is to enable diplomacy; it’s meant to enable a peaceful political solution to be achieved by diplomacy to the Syrian conflict. So sanctions are not a standalone tool. Sanctions can raise economic pressure on the Assad regime and its allies, but we also will continue to seek to raise political pressure. We will seek through intense diplomacy, which we do have, to try to press the Assad regime and its allies to come to the table in a meaningful way and to implement UN Security Council Resolution 2254. It’s very straightforward. There are no – there are no hidden plans. There’s – it’s United States policy is to implement 2254.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much for that, sir. Our next question comes to us from Bachir El Khoury with AFP. Please go ahead, Bachir.
Question: Hello. Can you please elaborate on the logic behind sanctioning Hafez al-Assad?
DAS Rayburn: Sure. There has been a trend among senior Syrian regime actors, both officials and businesspeople who are acting on behalf of the Assad regime, to do business through their adult family members to try to evade sanctions in that way. It’s also clear that there has been a rise to prominence among the war profiteers of Syria of the Akhras family. So we consider – we intend for today’s designation of Hafez Bashar al-Assad – it’s as a part of that. You would see in the past, for example, that we have designated the adult family members of Mohammed Hamsho and a few others. That is the trend because it has been such a prominent trend among Syrian regime actors to use their adult family members, whether those are siblings or children, to try to continue business in their place after being sanctioned.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much for that. We have a question that was submitted to us in advance. This is from Joseph Haboush from Al Arabiya. His question is: “Arab and Gulf countries have taken a back seat in the conflict in Syria. Is their help being sought in any way or have they expressed an interest in finding a resolution?”
DAS Rayburn: Of course we’re in very close coordination with our Arab partners on the Syrian conflict. As you know, we – one of the major ways in which we coordinate actions and diplomatic initiatives is through the Small Group of nations, which includes the three – our three European allies, France, the UK, and Germany, but it also includes Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. So we are in – we are in near continuous discussion with our major Arab partners about what we need to do together to try to reach a political solution to the Syrian conflict.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much for that. We have time for one last question, and that will go to Ibrahim Hamidi with Asharq Al-Awsat. Please go ahead.
Question: Hi, Joel. Thank you so much for this briefing. Actually, my question is just to follow up on the previous question, which is related to Hafez Bashar al-Assad. I mean, the 17th of June you sanctioned Asma al-Assad, and now you’re sanctioning Hafez al-Assad. Is there any political message behind this or is it just related to economic and to the – just to the economic dimension? Is there any political dimension to that? Thank you.
DAS Rayburn: Yeah. Well, we view them – we view them as one and the same, Ibrahim, the political and the economic, because it seems very clear that the immediate family of Bashar al-Assad and the in-laws together are attempting to consolidate economic power inside the Syrian regime, which they then would no doubt use to try to further consolidate political power. So for us, the – it’s – the point of the sanctions is to try to prevent the Assad regime from consolidating that kind of economic control, which it would then use to perpetuate the war and to perpetuate the killing machine against the Syrian people. So we view very much that, just as I think you would probably find with the Syrian regime’s inner circle view, that economic power and the political aspects are very closely, closely related.
Moderator: Thank you. Unfortunately, that was indeed the last question that we have time for today. Deputy Assistant Secretary Rayburn, do you have any closing words you’d like to offer?
DAS Rayburn: I would just like to say that as we’ve said before, this is a campaign that will continue. This will continue to be the summer of Caesar. We will continue these kinds of sanctions designations in the coming weeks and months and there will be no end to them until the Syrian regime and its allies accede to the implementation of Security Council Resolution 2254 and put a stop to their attacks against the Syrian people so that the Syrian people can begin to heal from this conflict.
Moderator: Thank you very much. I’d like to thank Deputy Assistant Secretary Rayburn for joining us today and thank all the journalists on the line for participating and for your questions.