On June 17, 2020, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and the US Department of State announced the addition of 17 individuals and 22 entities to the List of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDN List), pursuant to the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019 (Caesar Act) and Executive Order 13894 (EO 13894), for their support of the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria, and actions to undermine peace efforts in the country.  The State Department described the concurrent designations as part of a “whole-of-government campaign by the United States aimed at deterring the Assad regime from continuing its attacks against the Syrian people.”

Legal Background

The designations mark the first use of sanctions provisions in the Caesar Act, which was passed on December 20 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020. Section 7412 of the Caesar Act, named in honor of a Syrian military police photographer who documented Syrian atrocities, authorizes blocking sanctions against foreign persons who knowingly provide significant financial, material, or technological support to, or knowingly engage in a significant transaction with, the Syrian government or a senior “political figure” of the Syrian government, and foreign persons who knowingly facilitate the Syrian government’s acquisition of goods, services, or technologies in support of military, aviation or oil and gas sectors.

Section 2 of EO 13894, issued in response to the Turkish army’s offensive into northeast Syria in October 2019, targets, among others, foreign persons responsible for or complicit in, or directly or indirectly engaged in, the “obstruction, disruption, or prevention of efforts to promote a political solution to the conflict in Syria.”

In addition to the provisions of the Caesar Act, the US government maintains an extensive Syria sanctions program designed to address various proliferation, terrorism-related, and human rights concerns.

Basis for Designations

The recent designations target individuals and entities located in Syria, Lebanon, Canada and Austria.  They include individuals involved in the development of lands alleged to be expropriated from Syrians displaced throughout the Syrian civil war. According to the Treasury and State Departments, some of the designated persons sought to profit from the development and management of luxury property developments such as Grand Town Tourist City near the Damascus airport, and Marota City, a multimillion-dollar residential and commercial development. The targets include Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, his wife, Asma al-Assad, and other members of the Assad family.

In a press statement, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he anticipated “many more sanctions,” and that the US government “will not stop until Assad and his regime stop their needless, brutal war against the Syrian people and the Syrian governments agrees to a political solution to the conflict as called for” in UN Security Council Resolution 2254. However, the statement noted that the US government’s Syria-related sanctions generally do not apply to bona fide humanitarian assistance, and reaffirmed its commitment to ensuring that Syrian civilians continue to receive humanitarian support. The broad scope of the Caesar Act has generated concern within regional business and political communities, especially in Lebanon given the interconnectedness of the two nations’ economies.

As a result of the designations, all property and property interests of persons on the SDN List that are in the United States, or are in the possession or control of US persons, must be blocked and may not be dealt in. Non-US persons that engage in certain significant transactions or provide material support to persons designated under OFAC’s Syria sanctions program may themselves be exposed to designation pursuant to EO 13894 or the Caesar Act.