New US sanctions against Syria include families of Bashar, Maher al-Assad
WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – On Wednesday, the Trump administration announced a new, comprehensive set of sanctions on Syria, known collectively as the Caesar Act.
In addition to the Syrians named on Wednesday, the new measures target foreigners “who facilitate the Assad regime’s acquisition of goods, services, or technologies that support” its military, “as well as its aviation and oil and gas production industries,” the State Department explained.
For the first time, the sanctions include the female relations of senior Syrian figures, including the British born spouse of President Bashar al-Assad, as well as the wife of Bashar’s younger brother, Maher, who commands the army’s Fourth Armored Division, which has played a key role in providing regime security. Additionally, their older sister, Bushra al-Assad, was also designated.
Amb. James Jeffrey, US Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, explained why the US is targeting family members: “in prior sanctions, when we’ve sanctioned the principal,” we found that “they move financial and other resources to family members.”
The new sanctions underscore the familial relations underpinning the Assad regime. As in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Ba’athist ideology, which ostensibly promoted socialism and Arab nationalism, proved to be so much eyewash, legitimizing narrow, sectarian, and family based rule.
Aim of New Sanctions
The new measures target 39 individuals and entities and aim at forcing the Assad regime to cease its atrocities against the Syrian people and to implement UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which provides for a political settlement of the country’s civil war.
Two sets of measures were announced on Wednesday—by the State Department and the Treasury Department. The State Department designated 15 individuals and entities, and its measures focused on those obstructing a political settlement.
“Now anyone doing business with any of these persons or entities is at risk of sanctions,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated, as he made clear more would follow.
“We will continue this campaign in the coming weeks and months to target individuals and businesses that support the Assad regime and obstruct a peaceful, political resolution of the conflict,” Pompeo said.
As the fighting in most of Syria has wound down, the new measures, which the US has coordinated with the European Union, will be a significant obstacle to reconstruction in the regime-held areas of the country.
Indeed, Jeffrey explained that on Tuesday he had “a virtual conference with many Syrian reps from European countries.”
“They’re all holding the line very well,” Jeffrey said. “I think people understand what is going on.”
In a not-so-subtle indication that Syrian reconstruction is targeted, the 24 individuals and entities sanctioned by the Treasury Department “are actively supporting” the regime’s “corrupt reconstruction efforts,” the Department explained.
These sanctions “stem from the development of land that was expropriated from Syrians displaced by the regime,” it stated. “To make way for five-star real estate, the regime has evicted and razed the property of tens of thousands of residents from areas in Damascus that were, until recently, working class neighborhoods, sympathetic to the opposition.”
It is generally assumed that Moscow is committed to keeping Assad in power, but Jeffrey suggested, in highly qualified language, that may not be so.
“We’re seeing some signal, however modest, out of Moscow from non-official, but authoritative, sources that they’re having some doubts” about Assad, he said, “and we’re seeing at least a somewhat greater willingness” to “at least explore with us and our friends in European Union,” as well as with some Arab countries “possible steps to ease the crisis in Syria.”
Troubles within the regime and its territory
The new sanctions have contributed to a precipitous drop in the value of Syria’s currency – by some 44 percent – as it reached record lows on Wednesday.
“We’ve begun to see protests in Druze areas,” including “armed opposition to the regime,” Jeffrey noted. “The Druze have been generally supportive of Assad,” he continued, “but they are protesting and they’re making it very clear.”
A secretive, tightly knit community, whose origins lie in a heterodox Islamic sect, the Druze have a centuries-old tradition of accommodating rulers. It has helped them stay alive.
Thus, in Syria, the Druze have supported the Assad regime, but across the frontier, in Israel, they serve in the army, including elite units, and are subject to the national draft—which would not happen, if their loyalty was in doubt.
Thus, as Jeffrey noted, a rebellion among Syrian Druze is noteworthy.
Jeffrey also pointed to splits within the regime. Asked about Asma al-Assad, Bashar’s wife, whom Pompeo called “one of Syria’s most notorious war profiteers,” he explained that she was something akin to “the business head of the family” and was involved in the highly public conflict with Rami Makhlouf, maternal cousin of Bashar, Maher, and Bushra, and once the richest man in Syria.
Jeffrey described Asma al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf as “oligarchs, who had their two competing sets of economic interests,” which is “one reason why she and her husband went after him.”
Both Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin emphasized that the new US measures will not affect northeast Syria, under the control of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.
“The Caesar Act and other US Syrian sanctions do not target humanitarian assistance for the Syrian people or hinder our stabilization activities in northeast Syria,” Pompeo affirmed. Mnuchin was quoted as using the exact same language in the Treasury Department’s statement.
Indeed, while describing Moscow’s shifting attitude toward the Assad regime, Jeffrey explained that prospects for re-opening the border crossing into northeast Syria have improved.
Moscow had blocked authorization for keeping the border open during a vote on the measure in December in the UN Security Council. However, “We’re working with the Russians now for a new resolution,” Jeffrey explained, “and we’re hoping that a solution can be found for humanitarian aid to the northeast.”
The Caesar Act is named for the alias used by a Syrian military photographer, who smuggled over 50,000 pictures of Syrians tortured by the regime in the two years between the outbreak of that country’s civil war in 2011 and his defection in 2013.
In 2014, “Caesar” testified before the US Congress. Legislation prompted by his testimony was first approved by the House of Representatives in 2016. It finally became law in December 2019, when it was incorporated into major Defense Department legislation and signed by President Donald Trump.
Mick Mulroy, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, and co-founder of the Lobo Institute, hailed the implementation of the Caesar Act.
“The Assad regime has to be held accountable for what they have done to the Syrian people that resulted in over 700,000 people being killed and over 10 million being displaced,” Mulroy told Kurdistan 24.
“The international community also needs to increase humanitarian aid and stabilization funding to the areas liberated from this despotic regime,” he continued, and “do everything we can to help the Syrian people and everything we can to end the Syrian regime.”
In 2003, Mulroy worked with the Peshmerga, in the context of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the overthrow of Saddam’s regime.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany