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US imposes sweeping sanctions on Syria and its backers

Bashar al-Assad (The Kremlin/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

New U.S. sanctions on Syria’s crumbling economy come into effect on June 17 in an attempt to deprive Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his backers any benefits from a military victory.

The United States and the European Union already have sanctions on Syria, but the latest from Washington extend to punish any individuals, institutions, or companies conducting business with Damascus.

The bill, known as the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, can be used to target Assad’s main backers — Russia, Iran, and Lebanon’s Hizballah militant group.

But it will also impact China as well as regional players Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Gulf states seeking to reconcile with Syria as it attempts to rebuild following nine years of devastating civil war.

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The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Kelly Craft, told the UN Security Council on June 16 that the sanctions are designed 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.”

Craft said Assad must implement a Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire, elections, and political transition along with long-stalled UN-led talks.

“The Assad regime has a clear choice to make: pursue the political path established in Resolution 2254, or leave the United States with no other choice but to continue withholding reconstruction funding and impose sanctions against the regime and its financial backers,” Craft said.

The Caesar Act, which was passed by Congress in December, is named after a former Syrian military photographer who escaped the country in 2014 with 55,000 images of brutality in Assad’s jails since he launched a crackdown on protests three years earlier.

The Syrian government has regained most territory from various rebel factions, except for an enclave in northwest Idlib Province and some Kurdish-controlled areas.

After a decade of war that has killed some 700,000 people, the regime is now facing a Pyrrhic victory.

Towns and cities lay devastated, millions are displaced and in poverty, and the economy is crumbling under rising prices and currency collapse.

Critics of the sanctions say that they are an ill-intentioned bid to hamper efforts to rebuild Syria and only hurt Syrian civilians. They also say it aims for the unrealistic goal of ousting Assad and his cronies from power after his forces secured military victory against a divided opposition.

“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. Can sanctions accomplish what war could not? It seems unlikely,” Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and fellow at the Quincy Institute think tank, told RFE/RL.

“However, sanctions are sure to hurt many innocent people. Syrians are already on their knees. This will simply bring them a bit lower,” he said.

Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said on June 16 that the United States had confirmed “that the purpose of these measures is to overthrow the legitimate authorities of Syria.”

China’s UN Ambassador Zhang Jun said that “as vulnerable countries like Syria are struggling with the [coronavirus] pandemic, imposing more sanctions is simply inhumane and may cause additional catastrophes.”

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizballah, described the sanctions as “America’s last weapon” meant to “starve” the Syrian people.

“Syria’s allies who stood by its side politically and militarily will not abandon it in the face of an economic war and will not allow it to fall,” Nasrallah pledged.

The sanctions are set to hit Lebanon particularly hard at a time when it faces unprecedented economic and financial crises that have triggered months of protests.

Syria is Lebanon’s only land bridge to the rest of the Arab world.