- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Syrian President Bashar Assad has been inching toward claiming victory in a brutal nine-year civil war, with the main rebel and jihadi forces holed up in a single province along the Turkish border.

But Syria’s devastated economy might accomplish what the war could not: undermine the Assad regime’s hold on power with a big push Wednesday from the Trump administration.

Damascus on Wednesday announced a sharp devaluation of its currency as the U.S. government imposed the toughest sanctions yet on Syria’s battered economy. The sanctions target any company or entity that conducts business with Syria and specifically homes in on Mr. Assad and his wife, Asma.

“Today’s designations send a clear message that no individual or business should enter into business with or otherwise enrich such a vile regime,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement.

Syria accused officials in Washington of acting like “gangsters and bandits.”

The sanctions are part of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019, named after a Syrian military photographer who smuggled out 55,000 digital images of the destruction the civil war has caused.

Syria faces a massive rebuilding task after nearly a decade of war and will rely heavily on foreign investors to help foot the bill. But economic hardship and goods shortages have already begun to chafe, and public demonstrations against Mr. Assad have broken out in various cities in recent months.

Since the war began in 2011 after pro-democracy protests, at least 400,000 Syrians have died, according to estimates by the United Nations special envoy to Syria. Millions have fled Syria and millions more have been displaced within the country.

The U.S. and European Union imposed tough sanctions on Assad and his inner circle in the early days of the war in Syria, in particular for the regime’s expected use of chemical weapons, but enforcement has been partial at best. The latest U.S. sanctions, targeting the companies and governments that want to help the Assad government rebuild, are expected to be much tougher to evade.

Trump administration officials said the primary thrust of the sanctions is to force the regime to stop abusing human rights and to enter into talks with anti-government forces on a political solution to the war.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Kelly Craft credited earlier sanctions with preventing Mr. Assad’s armies from obtaining a military victory much sooner. Mr. Assad pledged this year to achieve complete victory in the war “sooner or later” after the military made gains in northwestern Syria and gained control of the Aleppo province.

“Our aim is to deprive the Assad regime of the revenue and the support it has used to commit the large-scale atrocities and human rights violations that prevent a political resolution and severely diminish the prospects for peace,” she said.

As part of the sanctions, the State Department announced it was designating 39 people and entities, including Mr. Assad and his wife, in “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.”

Under existing U.S. sanctions, any American is prohibited from doing business with the Assad regime. The new sanctions target citizens of any country who work with the Assad government. The act specifically cites the Iranian militias and Russian mercenary forces that played a key role in turning the tide of battle in Mr. Assad’s favor.

Syria’s allies push back

Countries such as Russia that see a major profit opportunity in helping Syria rebuild denounced the Trump administration’s move.

Russian Ambassador to the U.N. Vasily Nebenzia accused the U.S. of trying to “overthrow the legitimate authorities of Syria,” Reuters reported. Iran, meanwhile, is reportedly gearing up to provide Syria with additional economic support to cushion the pain of the sanctions.

“We have strong economic relationships with Syria, and as for the latter, [it has] a credit line in Iran,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told Russia’s Sputnik news. “We and our friends will work to develop the economic situation in Syria and enhance economic cooperation between Iran and Syria.”

The sanctions also target those who conduct business that supports the regime’s military activities as well as its aviation and oil and gas production industries, but the State Department said that move was tailored to allow humanitarian assistance to continue.

“It is time for Assad’s needless, brutal war to end,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. “Today, the Assad regime and those who support it have a simple choice: take irreversible steps toward a lasting political solution to the Syrian conflict … or face ever new tranches of crippling sanctions.”

The U.S. sanctions met with mixed reviews. Many applauded the uptick in pressure on the regime, but some Syria watchers said the move was made too late and was unlikely to undermine the dogged Mr. Assad.

“This sends a clear message to the international community that the United States will not tolerate efforts to normalize ties with [Mr. Assad], who continues to terrorize the Syrian people,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James E. Risch, Idaho Republican.

House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, New York Democrat, called the sanctions a “welcome but overdue step,” given the law’s passage a year ago.

Safwan Qurabi, a member of Syria’s parliament, told The Associated Press that the U.S. sanctions “aim at pitting the Syrian citizen against the government.”

“The law is an invitation to inner discord and chaos,” he said, adding that the government is taking steps to handle the sanctions.

Damascus has struggled to prop up the value of the Syrian pound as the threat of U.S. sanctions loomed larger. Over 80% of Syrians are living in poverty, according to the United Nations, and some wondered Wednesday whether the Syrian people, rather than the regime, could be hurt the most in the short run.

Basic home essentials such as sugar, rice and medicine are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain, and many have begun stockpiling such goods out of fear of surging prices.

With the economy in tatters and public unrest growing, Mr. Assad is “actually the weakest he’s ever been in the past 20 years,” Sam Dagher, a nonresident fellow at the Middle East Institute.

“Outwardly, he’s the victor. But really, he’s only able to hang on because his two principal patrons, Iran and Russia, want him there. The moment they withdraw the support, he’s finished.”

But Mr. Assad has proved a wily survivor over the years by holding on to power when many were ready to write him off.

“Nine years of war and the death of hundreds of thousands have not changed Assad’s course or caused him to question the rectitude of his position,” Joshua Landis, a leading U.S. scholar on Syria and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in an interview this week.

“Can sanctions accomplish what war could not? It seems unlikely,” Mr. Landis said.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Lauren Toms can be reached at lmeier@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide