US Ramps Up Pressure on Syria With New Sanctions

A Syrian man walks through the destruction of the Salaheddine neighborhood in eastern Aleppo in 2018. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — President Donald Trump’s administration announced new sanctions Wednesday against members of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in an effort to “stop their needless, brutal war against the Syrian people.”

“We will continue this campaign in the coming weeks and months to target individuals and businesses that support the Assad regime and obstruct a peaceful, political resolution of the conflict,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added in a statement.

Pompeo said the sanctions are “the beginning of what will be a sustained campaign of economic and political pressure to deny the Assad regime revenue and support it uses to wage war and commit mass atrocities against the Syrian people.”

The new sanctions were first announced in a joint statement from the Treasury Department and State Department on Wednesday morning. The departments said the targets “include regime-loyalists, Syrian financiers supporting corrupt reconstruction efforts, and individuals actively involved in the ceasefire disruption in northern Syria.”

Among those being subject to the financial sanctions are Assad himself as well as his wife, Asma al-Assad, who Pompeo called “one of Syria’s most notorious war profiteers.”

The news comes after fresh rounds of reported civilian uprisings in the region as well as the collapse of the nation’s currency.

The U.S. effort aims to capitalize on that chaos, and uses authority under the National Defense Authorization Act as well as the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, signed into law by President Trump in 2019, to impose the new measures.

According to experts, this is the first use of the Caesar Act, named after the code name given to a member of the Syrian government who was responsible for photographing corpses of victims of the Assad regime. Caesar defected in 2014 and brought to the U.S. thousands of photos of those tortured and killed by Assad’s forces. That effort helped bring international attention to the humanitarian crisis caused by Syria’s ongoing civil war.

“His smuggling of the photos was one of the largest pieces of evidence we have about the brutality of the prisons in Syria,” said Basma Alloush, a policy and advocacy adviser at the Norwegian Refugee Council, on an episode of Aaron Stein’s Foreign Policy Research Institute podcast The Middle East Brief focusing on the new sanctions. 

Stein, director of research at FPRI, said the new sanctions will do more to increase misery for the Syrian people because of secondary effects that will follow in their wake. He said the move will create a hyper-regulated environment and end up harming the possibility of investment by increasing risk. 

“It makes it very difficult to transact with Syria,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday. “People weren’t chomping at the bit to invest in Syria before this, but for entities who wanted to use some kind of economic activity as a confidence building measure as they try and make nice with Assad, life becomes very, very difficult.” 

He said nations like the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Iran and Lebanon will all be less likely to invest in Syria after the latest round of U.S. sanctions.   

Stein also questioned Pompeo’s promise to avoid civilian impacts from the new measures. 

“If you’re a bank, why would you risk running afoul of the U.S. Treasury for a client that makes no money, and Syria makes no money for anybody,” he said. “You’ll do no transactions in Syria because the risk is so high – that’s the risk of secondary sanctions.” 

The use of sanctions in the region is nothing new. Alex Simon, director of the international policy think tank Synaps’ Syria program, spoke to their history on Stein’s podcast, saying they’ve been in use for decades and have only “piled on in lawyers” since. 

“From the beginning, the objective of sanctions has been to ratchet up pressure on the Assad regime with the end goal of forcing a political transition,” Simon aid. “As time has gone on that goal has seemed more unlikely.”

Alloush also expressed concern about the continued use of sanctions in the region and worried the Caesar Act, while good in theory, might negatively impact Syrian civilians as well as small and large businesses who hope to invest in the country’s recovery. 

“Humanitarian organizations are already experiencing delays in the region,” she said.  “Additional sanctions are going to create a stronger overcompliance environment where businesses and banks will be more reluctant to work in government-controlled areas.”

As critical of the new sanctions as Simon is, he was also quick to clarify Assad’s regime was the nexus of the problem. 

“[The regime] has been destroying its own infrastructure, and killing and exiling its human capital, for 10 years,” he said.

As for the success of the newest sanctions, and the impact the move might have on the dictator who leads the country, Stein is about as confident as he was in the previous administration’s sanction-focused effort.

“The Trump administration has adopted a policy of strategic patience, just like the Obama administration,” he said. “They don’t have a policy beyond making life hard for Bashar and hope he implodes.”

“That’s it,” he added.   

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