‘New US Sanctions will fail to force Assad regime, Hezbollah to relent’

The measures imposed Wednesday target President Bashar al-Assad, Iranian and Russian entities and any company cooperating with the regime or contributing to the reconstruction of Syria.

An internally displaced woman, sits with her relatives inside a tent near the town of Afrin, Syria, February 17, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/KHALIL ASHAWI/FILE PHOTO)
An internally displaced woman, sits with her relatives inside a tent near the town of Afrin, Syria, February 17, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/KHALIL ASHAWI/FILE PHOTO)
New US sanctions came into effect on the Syrian regime this week, for war crimes committed during the civil war that has been going on for more than nine years.

The measures imposed Wednesday target President Bashar al-Assad, Iranian and Russian entities and any company cooperating with the regime or contributing to the reconstruction of Syria.

The sanctions come under legislation called the US Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. Although the bill has yet to become law, parts of it were incorporated into the National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal 2020.

The Caesar legislation broadens US sanctions to include Syrian officials, any foreign person who deals with the Syrian government, and several sectors in the country from construction to oil and gas.

Its name is taken from the code name of a military photographer who escaped Syria with 53,275 images of torture and death from inside its prisons.

“We anticipate many more sanctions, and we will not stop until Assad and his regime stop their needless, brutal war against the Syrian people and the Syrian government agrees to a political solution to the conflict as called for by UNSCR 2254,” the US State Department said on Wednesday.

Security Council Resolution 2254, adopted unanimously on December 18, 2015, calls for a cease-fire and a political settlement in Syria.

Brian O’Toole, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global Business and Economics Program and a former senior official in the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, told The Media Line that the Caesar Act was designed to target the Assad regime and those who assist it in consolidating its power, given the many atrocities it has committed against its own citizens.

The legislation also provides for special measures to be taken against the Central Bank of Syria if it is established as a “basic financial institution in money laundering operations,” he said.

“The new focus that Caesar has given to US policy is on those that enrich the Assad family and regime, though it is important to note that the US already had authorities in place to sanction those providing support to the regime,” he said.

O’Toole said these new sanctions would not greatly affect ordinary citizens in a dramatic way, although they did make it less likely that foreign companies would be willing to participate in reconstruction efforts by the Assad government. “There should be no discernible effect on Hezbollah, which already has the maximum level of sanctions imposed on it,” he added.

More broadly, he said it was not clear whether these sanctions signaled a push by the Trump Administration to be more active in trying to forge peace in Syria, or if they were merely a way to sound tough against a US foe without any strategic shift in policy or greater push to forge a solution to the bloody conflict.

Malek AlHafez, an Amman-based Syrian writer and political researcher, told The Media Line that these sanctions would directly harm the Syrian people, despite the fact that they were imposed to target the regime and push it toward a political solution in accordance with the UN resolution.

This was the case “simply because Syrians are controlled − in one way or another − by the institutions of the state which are ruled by the regime,” he said. “Although the American Act excluded food supplies in one of its clauses and humanitarian aid as well, weakening the economy will harm the Syrian people, who struggle to secure their daily subsistence.”

AlHafez said that while the pressure on the regime certainly might lead the situation in Syria toward a political solution, the question remained: How long will it take to force the regime to bow until we reach this solution? “Such a thing isn’t possible currently; therefore the impact of the sanctions on the Syrian people will be prolonged.”

He added, “The current situation in Syria doesn’t allow for any agreement, at least during the next six months, because of both the coming American elections and the lack of clarity of the situation on the ground in northern Syria, between the [Kurdish-led] northeast and [the last rebel bastion in the] northwest of the country.”

AlHafez said that historically, no nation had such sanctions imposed upon it without its population being affected enormously, without harming the economy, the national currency and the people.

Experts indicated that the sanctions, which of course target the Lebanon-based Hezbollah organization − the most important arm of Tehran in the region and one of the main pipelines to supply and sustain the Syrian regime − would not affect the armed organization on the ground, but rather the Lebanese people, and that negatively and positively at the same time.

When reached by The Media Line, Imad Hoballah, the Lebanese minister of industry who was nominated by Hezbollah, declined to comment on the matter, as he was waiting for the official position of the government on the so-called Caesar Law.

Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese major-general and head of the Middle East Studies Center in Beirut, told The Media Line that Hezbollah would not be directly affected by the Caesar Law, as the organization was tied financially to Iran and not to Syria.

“As a matter of fact, the more financial sanctions are imposed against Iran, the more Hezbollah will be affected. The latter isn’t connected to the finances of Beirut or Damascus, as its cash comes from Tehran,” he said.

He stressed that the Lebanese people, as well as their Syrians counterparts, would be directly harmed by the sanctions, as their economies were closely connected, especially regarding Lebanese exports.

“Lebanon breaths economically through Syria, as the country’s borders are the sea, Israel and Syria. As a consequence, the latter provides the country’s main land crossings, to Iraq, Jordan and the Gulf states,” Jaber said, refraining from referencing the frontier with Turkey due to the fighting in northern Syria.

Lebanon was suffering from difficult economic conditions exacerbated by the global coronavirus pandemic and internal political issues, he said. “Beirut doesn’t need these additional economic complications [caused by the US sanctions].”

He added, however, that the US legislation might have a positive side, as it could enable the Lebanese government to secure control of its borders. “In particular, Beirut might be able to stop or decrease the smuggling [to Syria] of [subsidized] flour and fuel, which the Lebanese government pays for and provides,” Jaber said.

Hezbollah, according to American information, conducts trade with the Syrian regime through 120 unofficial border crossings. Smuggling of state-subsidized fuel to Syria reportedly costs the central bank of Lebanon annual losses of about $4 billion.

Dr. Mansour El-Kikhia, a Libyan-American professor of political science and geography at the University of Texas at San Antonio, told The Media Line that the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act most probably would never become law, “but major parts of it can be found in the National Defense Authorization Act. It places US sanctions on internal and external economic activity in Syria including the freezing of assets of individuals close to the Syrian regime.”

He said there was really very little the United States could do beyond using its economic might, as with Assad’s victory on the battlefield thanks to Russian support, “the US’s options for action have diminished considerably. Russia’s active involvement and its unwillingness to see its client state and foothold in the Mediterranean lost have saved the Syrian state from US ambitions, Israeli and Turkish ambitions, as well as Islamist aspirations in the Levant.”

El-Kikhia clarified that there was no doubt that US sanctions would hurt in the short run, but their impact would diminish as more and more countries in the region came to the aid of the people of Syria.
 
“Bashar’s regime has proven itself to be brutal and has been responsible for the misery of a great number of people, and there is no doubt that he is intensely disliked by a great number of people in the region and worldwide,” he elaborated. “However, the dislike of Mr. Assad is matched by an even greater dislike for the American president, Donald Trump, and US policies in the region. On a personal level, Mr. Trump made no attempt to hide his disdain and hatred for Arabs and Muslims since he came to office in 2016, and his policies in the region mirrored his feelings.”
 
He added that severing crucial aid to the Palestinians, “disregarding international law and recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,” and supporting Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights and the West Bank was tantamount to giving Israel carte blanche to do what it wants with US blessing and support.

“In short, there is no love or support among the majority of the inhabitants of the region for what the US says or does,” he said.
Finally, El-Kikhia said that the Syrian refugees would need to go back to the homes at some point or another, and hence an accommodation with the Assad regime would need to be reached, but until then, as long as the regime had Russia to lean on when the going got tough, “it will survive US sanctions.”
Read more at The Media Line.