While US sanctions don't translate to accountability, it will draw blood from the Syrian regime.
It is a damning critique of our collective humanity that it has taken around seven years for the Syrian regime and its allies to face crippling sanctions for their role in perpetrating a veritable genocide against the Syrian people.
It has taken the better part of a decade since a regime defector, codenamed “Caesar”, provided 54,000 photographs proving the absolute viciousness of the Assad regime against its own people merely for asking what many in the Western world take for granted – the freedom to live in peace, dignity, and with a say in the course of their country’s future.
Still, and despite the tardiness, significant elements of the eponymous Caesar Act came into force yesterday as part of a broader American national defence bill and will now oblige successive US administrations to impose sanctions on any person or entity that assists the Assad regime.
The Syrian economy is no more
The sanctions regime will be far-reaching and will allow the United States to freeze and seize assets, impose travel restrictions, and even arrest those it deems complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated against the Syrian people.
So far, it has swept up 39 people and entities, including Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad himself and his wife Asma. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has vowed “a sustained campaign” of sanctions that “will not stop until Assad and his regime stop their needless, brutal war against the Syrian people.”
The impact of international and specifically US sanctions has already been pronounced on the Syrian regime. Assad’s economy is in tatters and the Syrian central bank has caved in to pressure to further devalue the Syrian pound from the rate imposed in March of 700 pounds to the dollar, to now almost 1,300 pounds to the dollar. By contrast, pre-war exchange rates in early 2011 had the pound at 47 to the dollar.
The currency even plummeted on the black market to a record low of 3,000 pounds to the dollar which has pushed essential staples such as bread out of the reach of normal Syrians, even those of the middle classes and those living under regime control.
Even beyond the domestic misery, Assad’s international backers and accomplices from Iran to Russia are also at risk of falling foul of the Caesar Act.
Although Russia turned the tide of the war in Assad’s favour by intervening in 2015, it was arguably Iran’s bankrolling of the regime and its support in men and material that was the biggest contributing factor in allowing Assad to survive for as long as he has.
While actual figures are unknown, it is believed that Iran has contributed anything between $30 to $50 billion in direct financial support, with some sources suggesting it could be $15 billion per year. Now, however, Tehran will not be able to open its coffers to Assad in the same way that it has before.
Not only is Iran facing its own “maximum pressure” sanctions regime imposed by the Trump administration and risks a “double whammy” with the Caesar Act, but it is dealing with the severe impact of a coronavirus epidemic that is amongst the worst in the Middle East and which has been exacerbated by a plummeting of oil prices, one of Iran’s primary exports.
King over a graveyard
Regime apologists will of course point to the United States and other powers as being behind the collapse of the Syrian economy. Yet that belies the fact that it was Assad’s intransigence in the face of popular protests – and his arrogant refusal to even consider reforms that he himself promised when he first came to power two decades ago – that led to today’s nationwide devastation.
His actions have placed any well-intentioned international actor in a dilemma. Either they do nothing, allow Assad to claw back every last rebellious vestige in the country, and turn a blind eye to the genocide he has perpetrated just to allow the Syrian economy to recover and to restore some semblance of a normal life.
Alternatively, they will realise that allowing genocidal war criminals off the hook is not only a slap in the face of the established international order, but it is also no guarantee that Assad will simply stop killing in order to prioritise his nation’s economic and social wellbeing rather than securing his own selfish dynastic interests.
Assad has himself presided over the killing of almost 600,000 and the displacement of almost 12 million Syrians both as refugees abroad and internally within the failed state’s borders. From a pre-war population of about 21 million, he has absolutely wrecked the lives of more than half the population while putting the other half in abject terror.
Even so-called loyalists are not safe from his disastrous statesmanship, with protests calling for his downfall breaking out in Suweida in southwestern Syria in recent weeks, a city that was under his control throughout the war.
This is a clear sign of the inevitable – Assad must fall sooner or later. He simply cannot withstand more domestic turmoil and it is unlikely he will be able to simply use yet more military force. His own army is a poor excuse for one, his Russian and Iranian backers do not have unlimited resources, and his own loyalists want him gone.
Assad now sits alone atop a mountain of skulls and bones, but that makes for a rickety throne. His legacy will be that he butchered and ruined the lives of millions and, despite all that, still ultimately lost and went the way of history’s other arrogant dictators – a man history will only remember as a cursed and reviled tyrant.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.
We welcome all pitches and submissions to TRT World Opinion – please send them via email, to email@example.com