Intel: Assad, wife named in new Syria sanctions

al-monitor Syria's President Bashar al-Assad stands next to his wife Asma as he addresses injured soldiers and their mothers during a celebration marking Syrian Mother's Day in Damascus, in this handout picture provided by SANA on March 21, 2016. Photo by REUTERS/SANA.

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Sanctions

Jun 17, 2020

The US government named 39 individuals and entities, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his wife Asma and a coterie of regime insiders Wednesday, as part of a sweeping sanctions campaign targeting the Syrian government and its financial backers.

“Today we begin a sustained campaign of sanctions against the Assad regime under the Caesar Act,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote on Twitter. “Many more sanctions will come until Assad and his regime stop their needless, brutal war and agree to a political solution.” 

The bipartisan Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act allows for sanctions on anyone — Syrian or foreign — that does business with the government, specifically in the construction, engineering, energy or aviation sectors. Targets also include anyone who provides support for the government’s military operations or those of its main backers, Russia and Iran. 

First lady Asma al-Assad, who Pompeo describes as “one of Syria’s most notorious war profiteers,” was sanctioned by the US for the first time Wednesday. Several of the president’s relatives and members of his inner circle were also designated, including businessman Mohamed Hamsho and Assad's younger brother Maher al-Assad, who commands the elite Fourth Division of the Syrian Arab Army. The State Department also named Fatemiyoun Division, an Iranian militia operating in Syria. 

Many of those listed were already under US sanctions, but “now anyone doing business with any of these persons or entities is at risk of sanctions,” Pompeo said. 

The US Treasury Department also designated a group of regime-friendly investors contributing to Syria’s reconstruction with high-end real estate “aimed at ushering in a wealthy and loyal demographic.”

Why it matters: The Caesar Act, named for the defector who smuggled evidence of torture and murder of Syrian regime prisons, aims to stop such heinous crimes and deprive Assad of the resources he needs to rebuild Syria. The Trump administration argues that squeezing the regime financially may open Assad to concessions he hadn’t previously considered. 

But many Syria experts fear civilians will be indirectly impacted by the sanctions, which come as Syria’s economy is on the verge of collapse. The currency has plummeted to record lows, the cost of medicine and food have soared and rare protests have erupted in government-controlled areas. 

The regime is ultimately responsible for the economic devastation, but analysts say panic over the Caesar measures has likely contributed to the recent currency woes.

“A lot of Syrians are very much fearing the worst, and I think that this collapse factors in that sense of impending zoom,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey, the director of the Middle East & North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

What’s next:  More sanctions on the regime and its foreign patrons are expected in the coming weeks. Plan for a "summer of Caesar," State Department Syria envoy Joel Rayburn said Wednesday at a panel hosted by the Washington Institute. The sanctions “are just a first taste of what the US government is going to do under the Caesar Act,” he said. 

The US Treasury Department is also expected to label the Central Bank in Syria “a financial institution of primary money laundering concern.” 

Know more: Correspondent Elizabeth Hagedorn delves into the debate over whether Syrian civilians will be the unintended victims of the sanctions campaign. Pentagon correspondent Jared Szuba examines the Caesar Act’s impact on Kurdish-ruled northeast Syria.

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