A trove of tens of thousands of pictures released by a Syrian regime defector named ‘Caesar’ revealed the extent of torture and extrajudicial killing in the regime’s prisons. Now the US is targeting those responsible for the abuses with sanctions.

Around six years ago human rights groups and media outlets got hold of tens of thousands of pictures leaked to them by a Syrian regime defector known as ‘Caesar’.

The photos, which were taken in regime military prisons and other Assad loyalist installations, showed evidence of the most severe kinds of torture and neglect.

Some corpses of victims were emaciated, others showed signs of being beaten to death. Many others showed signs of infection associated with improper medical treatment.

Researchers at Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimated that at least 11,000 men, women, and children were systematically tortured to death between 2011 and 2013.

The leaks underscored the depravity of the means the Assad regime was willing to use in order to stamp out any opposition but little came in the way of punishment.

That is until Wednesday, when US sanctions under the Syria Caesar Act came into effect targeting the financial assets and dealings of those believed to have been responsible for the abuses.

Anyone doing business with the regime, anywhere in the world, will themselves be subject to the measures.

Besides the regime itself, the initial designation of 39 people sanctioned includes Bashar al Assad, his brother Maher, and his wife Asma al Assad.

Further designations will be made for anyone doing business with those already sanctioned. 

Announcing that the punitive measures had taken effect on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reserved special scorn for Asma al Assad and her family, who he said had used the war as an opportunity to enrich themselves.

“I will make special note of the designation for the first time of Asma al-Assad, the wife of Bashar al-Assad, who with the support of her husband and members of her Akhras family has become one of Syria’s most notorious war profiteers,” Pompeo said.

According to the act, the regime can take to avert sanctions by ceasing its attacks on civilians and taking concrete steps to end the conflict, but Assad seems unlikely to reverse course after nine years as things stand, meaning the US can continue implementing the sanctions until it sees fit to end them.

Pivotal moment?

Though the regime can likely mitigate some of the direct impact through grey or black market channels, it presides over Syrian territory that is on the brink of economic collapse.

In opposition held areas of the country, ordinary people and businesses are already switching to the Turkish lira for everyday transactions as the Syrian pound becomes all but worthless.

On the eve of the regime’s brutal suppression of pro-democracy protests in March 2011, one US dollar could buy 47 Syrian pounds at official rates.

As of today, the official Syrian Central Bank rate is 1,256 Syrian pounds per dollar, up from the rate of 704 pounds to the dollar, which was set only in March.

In unofficial markets, which have more of a bearing on the livelihoods of ordinary Syrians, rates can be as high as 2,800 Syrian pounds per dollar.

The rapid rate of inflation means that those reliant on the regime for their income are left with barely enough to cover their necessities.

The Syria Caesar Act sanctions will add to these woes for the regime.

Syria has been left economically and culturally devastated by nine years of conflict.

Many of those who rose up during and after March 2011, did so to protest the kind of brutality evidenced by the Caesar revelations.

Beyond a devastated economy and a regime that can still carry out abuses such as barrel bomb attacks with impunity, more than six million people have fled and another five million are internally displaced.

Some organisations following the conflict put the total death toll at more than 586,000.

Source: TRT World