Some five months have passed since the US began to enforce further economic sanctions against the Syrian regime and several of its leading figures through the Caesar Act signed by US President Donald Trump in December 2019.
The legislation put in place “harsh economic sanctions to hold accountable the Al-Assad regime and its foreign supporters” and included a blacklist of any person or entity having commercial ties to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad until it agreed to talks to make progress on the political process and to end the conflict in Syria.
The US sanctions and the implementation of the Caesar Act came at a time when the economic crisis in Syria was worsening, compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, the Syrian currency collapsing, and prices in the country sky-rocketing by more than 130 per cent in just a few months, according to the UN World Food Programme.
This put more pressure on the Syrian people, 80 per cent of whom already live below the poverty line, according to international organisations. Unemployment rates in Syria have spiralled out of control, and they are unlikely to be brought down by much even if development projects are put in place.
The US sanctions include a list of key figures in the regime and from Al-Assad’s family, and they freeze the assets of the Syrian state and of hundreds of Syrian companies and individuals. Washington has also banned US exports to Syria and blocked investment there, including in the oil industry and other critical sectors.
The US has vowed to freeze the assets of anyone dealing with Syria, irrespective of nationality, making the Caesar Act unique in its impact on third parties punished for dealing with an individual state.
When the US legislation was ratified earlier this year, Syrians living in areas under regime control rushed to buy dollars out of fears of growing inflation. This has led to the collapse of the Syrian lira, which has tumbled in recent months to an unprecedented low of 3,000 to the dollar.
The inflation has shattered many people’s purchasing power for basic goods, with the prices of fuel, food and daily necessities all skyrocketing, and devastating Syrian families already finding it difficult to survive after so many years of war.
The existential economic crisis in Syria was then compounded by Covid-19 outbreaks in regime-controlled areas, whose numbers are still climbing even if the regime has not given the real number of cases. Local and international medical sources say the pandemic is out of control in Syria and that the actual figures are much higher than the official numbers.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an NGO, recently accused the Syrian regime of concealing the real figures of Covid-19 cases in areas under its control and documented hundreds of new cases in these areas as well as hundreds of deaths due to the inability of the Syrian medical system to handle the pandemic.
It published figures collected from medical sources in regime areas showing that there have been more than 5,000 confirmed cases and more than 400 people have died. The figures come from across the country, but are mainly focused on the capital Damascus.
Tensions are rising in areas under regime control due to its denial of the real figures, how it is handling the outbreaks, and the way it is not taking necessary safety measures to curb the spread of Covid-19.
People are suffering from tragic living conditions, excessively high prices, a lack of employment, power outages, deplorable medical services, the imminent collapse of an already fragile health system and a lack of Covid-19 testing. Even when this is available, each test costs $100.
To make matters worse, Jordan has closed the Jaber border crossing to commercial activities. Syrians who want to travel into and out of Syria are now going through Beirut, as Lebanon allows Syrians to enter the country and to use Beirut Airport as long as they have a negative Covid-19 test.
The US NGO Human Rights Watch said the Syrian regime was not providing appropriate protection for medical or frontline workers and that the country was “overwhelmed, with its hospitals beyond capacity.”
Syrian political analyst Saeed Moqbel said that the US “sanctions have decimated oil production and exports, which were a key source of foreign currency. Lower tax revenues and remittances from abroad have also weakened state agencies. The state can no longer persuade businessmen to remain by its side and support it, and a large number of business leaders have distanced themselves from the state.”
Some medical agencies and staff in Syria have complained about the difficulties they face due to the US sanctions, especially the Caesar Act, including the fact that some medical equipment is categorised as “dual usage” because it can be disassembled and parts can be used to make weapons.
There are many organisations in regime-controlled areas that cannot operate without registering with the regime, and this means they have to request an exemption from the sanctions from the US Treasury. The procedure for this is neither easy nor transparent, and it is also expensive, especially for those operating in regime-controlled areas.
For the regime, the US Caesar Act is the latest installment in an economic war by the West against Syria, while Washington claims that the aim is to hold accountable those responsible for war crimes against civilians, deter the Syrian regime and force it to the negotiating table to end the conflict.
Regime allies have denounced the US sanctions, with Iran describing them as “inhumane” and leader of the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah Hassan Nasrallah saying that they aim to “starve Syria and its neighbour Lebanon”.
Nasrallah added that the sanctions were “the latest weapon” used by Washington against Syria. Russia said the sanctions were “illegal, illegitimate and target ordinary Syrians.”
According to US Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey, the US is seeking a “fundamental change” in the behaviour of the Syrian regime with the aim of forcing Al-Assad to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 which demands political reform.
To increase the pressure on Syria, Washington has supported Israeli air strikes against Syrian targets, Turkey’s seizure of Syrian energy sources, and the closure of the highway from Damascus to Baghdad to tighten the noose on trade.
Jeffrey anticipated that the Caesar Act would eventually be amended to avoid unintentional negative impacts, but for the time being the aim was to allow the US to rein in organisations and individuals directly or indirectly assisting the Syrian government.
“Some may argue that the Caesar Act is very detailed about sanctionable activities, but it also gives the US president and government substantial freedom in decision-making, including to support US national security interests,” Moqbel said.
“The legislation is flexible and can be made more stringent or more relaxed depending on Washington’s will. The regime is counting on this when trying to solicit international organisations to intervene with the US, and it may succeed if it makes political compromises under the table, though not necessarily for the benefit of the Syrian people, who are buckling under the US sanctions.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly