The long haul
Even as the United States intensifies its sanctions on the Assad regime in Syria, the endgame of the long civil war remains questionable and distant
The United States on June 17 imposed its toughest sanctions targeting Syrian President Bashar al Assad to choke off revenue for his Government and force it back to UN-led negotiations on ending the ongoing civil war in the nation.
Sanctions have been imposed on 39 individuals and entities, including Asad and his wife Asma, under what is known as the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, named after the Syrian photographer who bravely shared with the world thousands of photographs documenting torture in Syrian prisons. The Syrian leader siblings Maher and Bushra have also been brought under the Act.
The Act levies sanctions on those who deal with the Assad government or provide it with 'significant financial, material, or technological support' and anyone who supports the regime's military.
This is the first time Damascus has been sanctioned by the US on the basis of human rights violations rather than threats to American national security. The Syrian leader stands accused of a slate of war crimes against his own people across the nine-year-old civil war, including ordering the use of chemical weapons in rebel-held areas
The Act expands the authority of the US Government to sanction businesses, individuals and government institutions for economic activities that support the Assad regime's ability to wage war. Unlike previous sanctions, the Caesar Act brings under its jurisdiction third-country actors who engage in such activities, including the cross border business networks that are crucial to the regime's survival.
The Act requires the US administration to impose sanctions on any foreign person who knowingly provides significant support to the Syrian Government, entities owned or controlled by the Government or regime-affiliated military contractors, mercenaries and paramilitary actors (whether formal or informal), including forces affiliated with Russia and Iran.
It singles out oil and gas as well as construction sectors as areas for possible sanctions. The law also targets the sale of aircraft and spare parts, including military aircraft. Most at risk from the sanctions are the Assad regime allies in Russia, China and Iran.
More sanctions are expected. An indication of this was given by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who said, "We anticipate may more sanctions and we will not stop until Assad and his regime stop their needles, brutal war against the Syrian people."
Also, this is the first time Assad's wife Asma has been designated as a target by the US sanctions. The US statement announcing the sanctions said, "With the support of her husband and members of her Akhras family (she) has become one of Syria's most notorious war profiteers. Now anyone doing business with any of these persons or entities is at risk of sanctions."
The penalties it imposes are consistent with its objective — to erode the regime's capacity to wage war, and to create meaningful economic incentives to induce the Assad regime to free political detainees, end violence against civilians and demonstrate 'irreversible progress' toward the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 2254 calling for a ceasefire and political settlement of the conflict.
The Act included sanctions against third parties extending support to the Assad regime. Without such support, the Syrian leader's war-making capacity will be weakened significantly. The regime has been getting financial and military support from external allies like Russia, China and Iran as a result previous sanctions by US, European Union, Canada, Britain, Australia and Japan has not made a significant impact on the regime.
The Act will also sharply curtail the regime's ability to use Lebanon's economy as a backchannel to conduct business. Syria accesses the global economy through Lebanon. Since November 2019, the banking crisis in Lebanon has taken a toll on the currencies of both the nations and has limited Damascus's access to dollars, stifling Syria's ability to import basic necessities.
The potential harm the act might cause to Syrian civilians is a matter of concern. Economic sanctions tend to be a blunt instrument that often hit the people they are supposed to help more than the people they are designed to target. If applied to the letter, the sanctions could wipe out much of what is left of the Syrian economy.
Popular anger at the regime's corruption and economic mismanagement are growing. In recent weeks, many parts of the country have witnessed protests against the regime for its economic mismanagement. Alarmed at the development, Assad has reshuffled his cabinet, replacing the Minister of Trade in May and Prime Minister in mid-June.
There is no doubt that Syrian civilians are suffering tremendously with the country's economy spiralling rapidly downward and the sanctions may enhance their economic woes.
As far as President Assad's own position is concerned, he seems to be much more secure now because of the military successes he has achieved with the help of his allies, especially Russia. President Vladimir Putin is using the war in Syria to re-establish his country's supremacy in the Middle East.
However, it appears that the war's long endgame is not leading to peace in the near future. All will depend on the role of Russia, Turkey and the United States would be playing. Also to be taken note of is the fact that the jihadist extremists of Islamic State are reconstituting themselves in the deserts of Central Syria, killing government forces in hit-and-run attacks. An underground insurgency continues in southern Syria despite surrender by Rebels in 2018.
As of now, there is a remote possibility that the sanctions would force Assad to give up the power. This is more so because there is nobody to replace Assad so far. Syria seems to have no chance of a political settlement as matter stands, which means no chance of peace.
The writer is a former Editor of PTI and served as West Asia correspondent for PTI. Views expressed are personal