Cratering Syrian Economy? Blame it on Assad, not on Caesar

The Caesar Act debuted on June 17, preceded by warnings of dire consequences for the Syrian and Lebanese people and institutions that do business with the country. Many analysts built their doomsday scenarios largely on comparisons to the suffering of the Iraqi people during Saddam Hussein’s regime. They raise a legitimate concern with the accuracy of the notion that you can target sanctions well enough to prevent “collateral damage.”

In fact, there are several considerations in determining the likely impact of the Caesar Act sanctions: the current state of the Syrian economy and how it got there; the likely targets and how these affect the Syrian people, Lebanon, and the Lebanese doing business with Syria; how the sanctions will be implemented and sustained; and possible responses from external actors, mainly Russia and Iran, and even China.

As Joseph Daher mentioned in a Diwan interview, “Contrary to the claims repeated on an almost daily basis by Syrian government officials, sanctions, and so-called “foreign conspirators” are not the main reasons for the socioeconomic problems in the country. The Assad regime is mainly responsible for this situation thanks to its economic policies and the destruction it caused during the war, alongside its allies Russia and Iran.”

He acknowledges that the Caesar Act sanctions may well contribute to increasing the socioeconomic problems in Syria indirectly, for example, by causing energy prices to increase, which would affect consumers, farmers, transportation, and related occupations. In addition, Daher notes, “Lebanon’s economic crisis and the capital controls that Lebanese banks have imposed have negatively impacted Syria’s economy and businesses and Syrians with bank accounts in Lebanon. In addition, the Caesar Act might create downstream problems in that banks in Lebanon will be even more unwilling to have Syrian depositors, fearing possible links or operations linked to the Syrian government.” This will put increased pressure on Syrian businesses supplying the regime to avoid potential illicit behavior; and the choice of targets will also reverberate with Lebanese companies and individuals reluctant to take risks in an uncertain environment.

Although the Caesar Act mentions exemptions for humanitarian, small business, and cross-border transactions of needed foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals, it’s too early to tell how it will be implemented. The targets announced June 17 included regime associates and local and foreign companies doing business considered abetting the regime’s survival. The US has stated that this will be a “summer of sanctions,” and trends in applying sanctions should be quite clear by the end of the year. In fact, the threat of Caesar Act sanctions may have more of an impact in the immediate future than longer term as businesses and NGOs seek to avoid possible infractions by reducing activities with and in Syria. Another negative impact is that “Criminal syndicates and black-market economies will flourish, and the network around the Syrian president, which has protected his power, will only hold tighter to that power as they weather this considerable, but not insurmountable, challenge.”

Looking at the potential consequences of Caesar for the government, “Analysts say Syria’s imploding economy after years of war, mismanagement, and corruption was caused by the government, and civilians are likely to suffer the most from the new US sanction regime.” As Ibrahim Olabi, a lawyer at the London-based Guernica 37 Chambers and founder of the Syrian Legal Development Program said, “The Assad government maintains control over the Syrian economy and its institutions, making it an incredibly difficult task to target it for its war crimes without affecting the people. It is critical that the US puts a huge effort in making sure it affects those who deserve to be affected,” he warned, adding, “practically, this will not be an easy task due to lack of transparency in Syria and disinformation tactics adopted by the regime and its allies.”

This is where the reactions of Russia and Iran are yet to be apparent aside from the usual charges of genocide and imperialism leveled against the US. Their companies are clearly targeted by the act despite the reality that neither has the resources to undertake reconstruction projects requiring billions of dollars. So there may be a marriage of convenience if China becomes the major development partner in exchange for concessions on the Mediterranean Coast and other infrastructure projects such as roads. Then the US will have to decide how to play this new round of great power competition.

Living on Watermelon and Lemons in Syria

If you think Lebanon is in bad shape…look next door at Syria. World Vision reports that “About 5.6 million Syrians are refugees, and another 6.2 million people are displaced within Syria. Nearly 12 million people in Syria need humanitarian assistance. At least half of the people affected by the Syrian refugee crisis are children.”

Lebanon has to take its share of the credit for the economic decline in Syria: its plunging currency and shortages of basic necessities have driven the Syrian pound crashing to over 3,000 to a US dollar last week and it is estimated that 83% of the population lives beneath the poverty line. An average monthly salary in Syria can today can only buy a watermelon and two kilos of lemons, or two watermelons, or four kilos of lemons…you get it…the people are on the edge of starvation, which is why smuggling of subsidized food and fuel products from Lebanon is spiking even at inflated prices. There is a real likelihood of famine before the end of the year – and COVID-19 cases are rising.

And here comes the Caesar Act, designed to make Syria’s reconstruction very difficult by sanctioning companies and individuals that support reconstruction, the cost of which is now estimated at somewhere between $400 million and $1 trillion. Although there are exemptions for humanitarian needs such as food and medicine, NGOs and companies are reluctant to be caught in the uncertain wording of an untested law. The first sanctions are to be announced June 17, which should provide the first indicator of how severe the criteria are.

The war in Syria is far from over. Assad may control 60% of the country, but the US and its allies have a large chunk in the northeast including much of the oil deposits and agricultural land; Turkey has large areas under its control in the north; and jihadists control Idlib in the northwest. Turkey and the jihadists are using the Turkish lira as the currency in their areas to avoid the depreciating Syrian pound, thus weakening the currency even further. As a recent Al-Monitor report mentioned, “Assad may have crushed the opposition to his dictatorial rule in 60% of the country, but in 2020, every single root cause of the 2011 uprising is not just still in place, but has worsened. Challenges to the regime’s prosperity, credibility, or survival remain in place in every corner of the country.”

There has been speculation in regional, European, and US media about the stability of the Assad regime given these domestic fault lines and increasing criticism from its sponsors in Russia and Iran. They seem to be growing tired with Assad’s lack of compliance with their specific plans for Syria. With the continued financial crisis in Lebanon, the crippling levels of corruption and incompetence that riddle the regime and wider government structures, and the looming threat of the Caesar Act, their investments in the regime may become quite expensive. As Syrian activist Shoueb Rifai noted, “Assad’s biggest risk is no longer what Putin wants, or what Iran wants, or what regional powers are scheming. It is his own people, sitting in a pressure cooker.”

Hope in Short Supply in Lebanon Today

There are many who have asked where to begin to find a way to help the people of Lebanon during these debilitating times. This blog is the first of several to address who is helping those in need in Lebanon and highlights ATFL’s partnership with Rotary International/Lebanon in its campaign to combat hunger.

The continued decline of the Lebanese economy is frightening. Whether talking about the currency collapse or the consequent skyrocketing costs in basic food and services, the Lebanese are in an awful situation. In a country where only 45% of the workforce is part of the formal economy, and therefore qualify for social security and some other services, even they are now unemployed, working for reduced wages, and unable to pay for their children’s education, healthcare, and essential services such as housing, power, water…the list goes on.

According to a recent Atlantic Council blog, “More than one-third of the population has become unemployed as of May, with more than 220,000 jobs lost in the private sector since October 2019. Workers engaged in informal employment, such as low skill jobs, are estimated to be 55% of the Lebanese workforce. They stand as the most vulnerable in society due to the lack of social protection guarantees in their employment and absence of an inclusive social protection system in Lebanon.

There is little hope of help from the government. As I pointed out in a previous blog, “There are currently 600,000 people unemployed in Lebanon, an estimated 35% unemployment rate and climbing. Since the government is broke, there are no large-scale interventions to prop up the economy; and even those that exist for the poor and small and medium-sized businesses are underfunded.”

There is little hope that negotiations between the Lebanese government and the IMF will make a difference before the end of this year, and although the IMF has insisted on the importance of crafting a social safety net as part of a recovery plan, Lebanon has few resources to allocate to humanitarian relief. This is where the role of humanitarian organizations, both local and international, has become an indispensable tool for reducing the pain of the more than 60% of Lebanese now living in poverty.

It’s critical to understand that these are not just the lower economic tier. The middle class has been decimated, especially those who rely on a regular paycheck to take care of their needs. Even those with bank accounts face severe restrictions on retrieving their own funds since the system lacks liquidity; there just isn’t enough money in the system. What money there is has been severely eroded by currency fluctuations that defy recent efforts to control the exchange rate.

The situation is even worse for the Syrian refugee population. The International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian nongovernmental organization, reported that 90% of Syrian refugees they surveyed in April said they are “in critical need of food.” This figure was only 32% in March, according to Al-Monitor.

As noted in the opening of this blog, ATFL is partnering with Rotary to provide assistance to the Lebanese Food Bank, supported by 28 geographically diversified Rotary Clubs in Lebanon. 100% of the funds collected are being distributed to the Country Fund of Rotary Association Lebanon and designated for the Lebanese Food Bank. To make this work for US citizens, donations to ATFL, a US 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, are fully tax-deductible, and are fully earmarked for the Lebanese Food Bank.

These illustrations explain what is in the food boxes and how they are being distributed, in all areas of the country.

As you can see, to many of us of Lebanese descent, this looks like our kitchen pantry so we know people are getting needed food supplies, but for how long?

These are the everyday heroes of Rotary in Lebanon who are working to help their neighbors have enough to survive on.

If you know of a not-for-profit organization that has a US affiliate (for tax purposes) that is helping with this terrible situation in Lebanon, let us know at and we may be able to include them in a future blog.

To help with the LET LEBANON LIVE campaign, you can donate here, or go to our website for more information:

Time to Gig Up with Lebanese Talent!

Just wanted to take a few minutes to talk with you about Lebanon’s best and brightest who are staying home and trying to survive the awful economic and health crises in the country. We all know the situation: mounting national debt led to significant erosion of the Lebanese currency; inflation has soared; the cost of living has pushed more than 50% of Lebanese into poverty; and COVID-19 has disabled the educational system, closed many businesses, and left more than 35% of the country without jobs.

Since only 45% of the workforce is in the formal economy and therefore have some eligibility for social services, the rest have to rely on savings that they can only withdraw in small amounts from the banks, if they have savings left at all. It’s a catastrophe and there’s no sense of optimism as the political oligarchy have already indicated their reluctance to support an IMF-mandate reform plan that would eat into their patronage systems.

As one of Lebanon’s leading women entrepreneurs put it, “When there is so much talent in Lebanon, why am I ruled by the least competent & most careless…I keep wondering!” And this is from someone who went back to Lebanon hoping she could make a difference, employ local artisans, and give hope to small businesses by sourcing locally. Her story is repeated over and over again by the more than 70% of Lebanese who say their only futures are outside of the country. That’s a sad statistic, made even worse by the decline in remittances from abroad which had propped up the currency and provided some liquidity to the banking system…that’s gone and with it the ability to provide funding for business start-ups and economic growth.

We Zoomed recently with leaders of Jobs for Lebanon to understand what can be done to keep talented and skilled Lebanese in Lebanon. They walked us through their presentation and the statistics are daunting. There are currently 600,000 people unemployed in Lebanon, an estimated 35% unemployment rate and climbing. Youth, women, and graduates are particularly affected as well as those who are part of the 76% who usually work in the services sector. Since the government is broke, there are no large-scale interventions to prop up the economy; and even those that exist for the poor and small and medium-sized businesses are underfunded. Despite these challenges, in just a few months, the Jobs for Lebanon website lists some 2550 candidates and over 250 jobs.

So let’s talk about what you can do to access these talented people to give them opportunities while filling needs that you may have as your business scales back up. Jobs for Lebanon, as this video explains, has a jobs matching website, powered by Smartrecruiters, which is used by more than 4000 companies worldwide. It provides a scalable recruiting platform to match jobs and job seekers. It’s easy to use for both job seekers and employers and can be accessed from anywhere in the world. It is a key element in today’s gig economy wherein tasks can be contracted out to remote workers. As workforce decentralization in response to COVID-19 has demonstrated, productivity and quality are not affected by remote work, and employing Lebanese gives you access to vetted talent pools committed to performance and satisfaction.

You don’t have to be a Lebanese expatriate employer to use the matching service. Any business can take advantage of their talents. Initially, Jobs for Lebanon is targeting overseas Lebanese in 137 countries, working through a network of 14 representatives (“Ambassadors”), and doing outreach through organizations like ATFL. It is partnering with mentoring organizations to provide applicants with knowledge needed for interviews; remote learning sources for professional enrichment courses; and groups that provide vetting services to select talented applicants.

This is the opportunity to help your business recover and grow by employing talented Lebanese who otherwise have few options for using their skills and expanding their horizons. Again, you can find them at

Give Now, Give Later: Spirit of America is Helping Lebanese Families with Basic Food Supplies

Every day we hear horrific stories of Lebanese families falling into the abyss of no access to funds in banks, no work, little or no state assistance, and no way out of the cycle. Families are starving, medicines are scarce so health is deteriorating, and people have lost hope. It tears at our shared human spirit.

Who are the culprits and why is this happening? There is plenty of blame to spread around but the more critical question is “Can’t something be done about this NOW?” US assistance programs are ramping up their contributions. For example, the State Department announced a grant of $20 million in emergency tuition support for 1,800 Lebanese students at the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University to cover half their tuition.

ATFL is committed to using our resources in the US to educate decision-makers as to what America can do; we cooperate with NGOs to offer what assistance we can; and we are looking to profile organizations and individuals on the ground keeping hope and dignity alive for those suffering in Lebanon whether citizens or refugees.


The most recent organization we want to spotlight is Spirit of America (SOA), , made up of US military veterans offering immediate relief in more than 70 countries where US forces are stationed. To date, they have supported 1,366 projects in 82 countries, including 40 projects in Lebanon. All of this effort was made possible thanks to the support of 16,700 donors who contributed some $36 million. As its website explains, “When our troops and diplomats identify a local need they can’t address quickly, Spirit of America provides flexible, citizen-funded assistance. All America’s strengths and capabilities, our goodwill and generosity, our can-do spirit and power of inspiration: this is what we bring to bear exactly at the point of need, when it is needed.” In Lebanon, they have also worked with the Civil Military Cooperation Directorate as well as various LAF special operations regiments, and have provided food aid for vulnerable families in Tripoli, Arsal, and the South.

We met virtually with veterans Zack Bazzi, the Regional Director for the Middle East who was born in Lebanon, and Ryan Frost, the Director of Field Operations, to talk about their work. In Lebanon, SOA is helping provide food assistance. As SOA explains, “Hunger has become a reality for many Lebanese families. According to government estimates, nearly 75% of people require aid. If not swiftly addressed, food insecurity will quickly grow into physical insecurity in the form of riots, street clashes, and political paralysis at a time when Lebanon can least afford it.”

Through their latest campaign, they are seeking $13,000 for food assistance to vulnerable families hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. SOA is working with the LAF to distribute the food parcels and “the US Cooperation Directorate has identified local NGOs that will match some of our contributions, thereby amplifying the impact.” To date, less than $800 has been raised, so donors can make a great impact by contributing now to help the Lebanese families that will receive the aid. More information and ways to donate can be found here: For more information on SOA programs in Lebanon contact

Each time we think about how disastrous the situation is in Lebanon, let’s not forget that small steps can help fill the vacuum created by its leadership in helping the most disadvantaged Lebanese. We will continue to bring to your attention individuals and organizations that are committed to the common values that make the US-Lebanon relationship a great investment.