The Trump administration announced new sanctions against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Wednesday, beginning the implementation of the strongest, most sweeping U.S. sanctions law yet against his regime.
The Caesar Act — named after a Syrian military war photographer who smuggled out thousands of photos documenting the victims of the Assad government’s torture and butchery — requires sanctions on several top Syrian figures to send a “severe chilling effect on any outside investors who would be contemplating doing business with the Assad regime,” a senior administration official said.
The U.S. has led an increased economic pressure to drive the Assad government and its backer Russia to the negotiating table to find a political settlement after over nine years of war. But so far, Assad and Moscow have moved forward with a campaign to conquer the last rebel stronghold and declare a military victory, even as the country’s economy has collapsed in recent months.
Many of the Syrian officials and elites targeted Wednesday were already under U.S. sanctions, including Assad himself and businessman Mohammed Hamsho, who has reportedly earned a fortune using his close ties to the regime to win reconstruction contracts.
But prominent among the names of those newly sanctioned is Assad’s wife, Asma al-Assad, the British-born first lady of Syria once deemed the “Rose in the Desert” by Vogue magazine. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called her “one of Syria’s most notorious war profiteers” in a statement Wednesday.
In total, there were 39 individuals, businesses and divisions of the Syrian military that were blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury Department on Wednesday. Most are connected to real estate developments in the country, which have brought in foreign investment even as they break ground on land stolen from Syrians displaced by fighting or the government.
“We’re not going to reward Assad for destroying his country by pitching in with everybody else and building it back up for him,” said U.S. special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry accused the U.S. of “bypassing all international laws and norms,” according to Syrian state media.
The war in Syria, which began as a democratic uprising against Assad’s oppressive rule in 2011, spiraled into a bloody civil war after Assad’s forces brutally cracked down on dissenters. Soon, jihadist groups and foreign powers took advantage of the chaos, fomenting even greater violence — with 11 million people now displaced and at least 500,000 killed.
The country will need hundreds of billions of dollars to recover from the widespread destruction, according to World Bank estimates.
Unwilling to directly intervene in the conflict outside the fight against ISIS, the U.S. has withheld that financial assistance to pressure Russia, who has boosted Assad with forces, weapons and funds, to push its ally in Damascus to political negotiations, with Moscow unwilling to foot the reconstruction bill alone.
“Anyone doing business with the Assad regime, no matter where in the world they are, is potentially exposed to travel restrictions and financial sanctions,” Pompeo said in his statement.
The sanctions unveiled Wednesday, however, target only three entities outside the country — a company based in Austria and two telecommunications firms, based in Canada and Lebanon.
“While more designations are in the works for later this summer, this first round certainly won’t shake the Syrian government,” according to Tobias Schneider, a research fellow at the Global Public Policy institute in Berlin.
The senior administration official told ABC News that there will be more sanctions targets to come and that those blacklisted on Wednesday will help block any foreign investment into the country.
“We think there were quite a few plans that were in the works for outside investment to come in to some of these vehicles and others that have simply fizzled out because outside investors recognized the extreme risk” created by the Caesar Act, the official said.
“I can guarantee you and anyone listening, and the Assad regime, that of course there are going to be more actions like this. Of course there’s going to be intense economic and political pressure that will continue and continue and continue until the Assad regime accedes to a political solution of the conflict and ceases its atrocious behavior towards its own people,” the official added during a briefing with reporters.
So far, that policy has not stopped Assad and Moscow as they’ve moved on the last rebel stronghold in Idlib province, resuming in recent weeks aerial bombardment against targets after a truce because of the coronavirus pandemic. With Russian air power and weaponry, Assad seems intent on retaking Idlib, despite support for the rebels by Syria’s northern neighbor Turkey, which has at times clashed with pro-regime forces.
But even as he seems poised to win a battlefield victory in Idlib, Assad faces fresh economic woes that have caused new protests in some government-controlled parts of the country and turmoil within Syria’s ruling class.
Assad’s position “is worse than at any time, including when the opposition military forces were in the suburbs of Damascus and held Aleppo and much of the rest of the country,” said Jeffrey.
In particular, there have been some sporadic protests about the economic crisis, as the country’s currency collapses, unemployment rates remain painfully high and even government salaries have become worthless, if they come through at all.
Amid those budget shortfalls, the government has also pressured wealthy Syrian business leaders to cover its costs, but Rami Makhlouf, perhaps the country’s most infamous financier and a cousin and close friend of Assad’s, pushed back publicly by posting on social media about government penalties on him for paying up.
The U.S. must take advantage of that growing desperation that these fractures belie, according to Mick Mulroy, who served as Trump’s top Pentagon official for Middle East policy. To do so, he urged continued U.S. funding for stabilization projects like de-mining and restoration of basic services like water and health care in the areas retaken by the Syrian fighters allied with the U.S. — a mostly Kurdish fighting force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.
“We need to do everything we can to help the Syrian people and everything we can to end the Syrian regime. They are one in the same,” said Mulroy, now an ABC News contributor. “I hope we keep increasing the pressure on Assad, but also fully funding our stabilization efforts. Both are required.”