FILE - In this June 11, 2020, file photo, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the State Department in Washington. The Trump administration is ramping up pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad and his inner circle with a raft of new economic and travel sanctions for human rights abuses. (Yuri Gripas/Pool via AP)

US hits Syria's elite with new economic and travel sanctions

June 17, 2020 - 10:19 am

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration on Wednesday ramped up pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad and his inner circle with a raft of new economic and travel sanctions for human rights abuses and blocking a settlement of the country's conflict.

The State Department and the Treasury said 39 Syrian individuals, including Assad and his wife, had been designated for the new sanctions. Others include members of the extended Assad family, senior military leaders and business executives. Many of those on the list were already subject to U.S. sanctions, but the penalties also target non-Syrians who do business with them.

One newcomer to the U.S. blacklist is Assad's wife, Asma, had not been previously targeted but was hit for becoming what the State Department said is “one of Syria’s most notorious war profiteers.”

The sanctions are the result of legislation known as the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, named after the pseudonym of a Syrian policeman who turned over photographs of thousands of victims of torture by the Assad government.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the designations represent “the beginning of what will be a sustained campaign of economic and political pressure to deny the Assad regime revenue and support it uses to wage war and commit mass atrocities against the Syrian people.”

“Anyone doing business with the Assad regime, no matter where in the world they are, is potentially exposed to travel restrictions and financial sanctions,” Pompeo said in a statement.

Besides rights abuses, those targeted also were hit for obstructing a peaceful political resolution to the long-running conflict.

In addition to Bashar and Asma Assad, those designated on Wednesday include Assad's sister Bushra; his brother, Maher, and his wife, Manal; Mohamed Hamsho, the head of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce; his wife, Rania al-Dabbas; his son, Ahmed, a show jumper in Syria’s equestrian team in the 2012 Olympics; and Ghassan Ali, a right-hand man of Maher Assad, and Samer al-Dana, who are leaders of the Syrian military's Fourth Division.

Wednesday's announcement was widely expected, and ahead of it Syria devalued its currency by 44%. Syria announced a new official exchange rate for the pound amid chaos in the market just hours before the sanctions took effect.

Syria’s already troubled economy has sharply deteriorated, prices have soared and the pound had collapsed in recent weeks, partly because of fears that the sanctions would further isolate the war-ravaged country.

Experts say the new sanctions will be a heavy blow to a nation where more than 80% of the people already live in poverty, according to the United Nations. Syrian government officials have called it “economic terrorism.”

Syria is already facing sanctions — some in place even before the war — imposed by the United States and European countries against officials or individuals linked to Assad's government. The new sanctions will likely severely impact the inflow of foreign capital particularly for post-war reconstruction, especially from Russia and Iran, Assad’s main allies, as well as China and neighboring countries.

The Washington-based Syria Center for Justice and Accountability said the Caesar sanctions are designed for this purpose, “aiming to deter foreign financial engagement and commercial reconstruction agreements with the Assad government.”

But the group said the sanctions also contain provisions exempting humanitarian goods and services, similar to other sanctions, and intended to ensure the flow of aid and mitigate the economic consequences of the sanctions on the Syrian people.

Still, the currency collapse is obviously in part deepened by the panic over the impact of the sanctions.

People are hoarding dollars, and many commercial transactions have stopped. The government, in an effort to control the flow of foreign currency and the exchange rate, has cracked down on hawalas, or offices of exchange that are used by the majority of Syrians, which has also impacted the flow of foreign currency in the country.

A financial crisis in neighboring Lebanon, where there are controls on withdrawals and a shortage of foreign currency, has also impacted the Syrian banking sector and Syrians who had saved or did commercial transactions through Lebanon. Iran’s own economic woes, and the economic impact of coronavirus restrictions in the region, have all added to the crisis in Syria.

“Ultimately, the most significant cause of the economic crisis is the Syrian government — its irresponsible fiscal policy, continuous corruption, refusal to respect international laws and norms or engage in good-faith political and diplomatic negotiations,” said SCJA in a report issued Tuesday, which added the sanctions offer a clear path for the Syrian government out of the sanctions.

“Both the US and the EU sanctions regimes make clear that sanctions will be lifted if President Assad agrees to a political transition of power," it said. “If the Syrian government is genuinely concerned about the impact of economic sanctions on its ability to protect the Syrian public from COVID-19, there is a clear option available to it.”

___ Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria and Sarah el-Deeb in Beirut, Lebanon contributed.

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