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Owais Zaheer

Sanctions on Assad's regime will only compound Syrian suffering

Syrians in Idlib escape a neighbourhood bombarded by Russian-Syrian airstrikes [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 4 June, 2019

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Comment: Sanctions on the Syrian regime are an incoherent substitute for strategy, writes Owais Zaheer.
In January, the US House of Representatives passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019 which seeks to expand US sanctions against Syria. 

The bill is named after an unknown Syrian military photographer who, in 2014 leaked photographs of thousands of detainees tortured, mutilated and killed by Syrian military personnel. Although earlier versions of the bill failed to pass in 2016 and 2017 a more bipartisan consensus seems to be evolving in Congress this time around.

A Senate hearing held on May 22, saw both Republican and Democrat members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee urging the Senate to pass the bill.

The committee's Lead Republican, Michael McCaul lauded the bill as holding "Assad, and those that back him, accountable through sanctions for his brutality against innocent people."

In its present form, the bill would target anyone doing business with the Government of Syria, its central bank or for providing spare parts, aircraft, or financing to Syria's airlines.

It also targets persons assisting or supporting the Assad regime's reconstruction efforts or any moves to revive its energy industry.

The proposed Act's provisions include a mechanism for designating paramilitary and mercenary entities that are operating in Syria on behalf of Russia or Iran. While the bill makes exceptions for humanitarian activities, the reality is that banks in the West will shy away from processing any Syrian transactions or will require such extensive due diligence that timely delivery of aid will be further compromised.

Regime loyalists get preferential access to fuel

How these sanctions will modify the conduct of the Assad regime is unclear and the legislation remains silent on the question of Idlib, currently being pummeled by Russian airstrikes, or the third of Syria held by Kurdish forces allied with the United States.

Absent a broader coordinated strategy, sanctions alone will not result in the capitulation of the Assad regime or modification of his regime's brutal conduct. Rather, they will compound the suffering of ordinary Syrians who are primarily impacted by sanctions.

Since last November, the Trump administration has belatedly begun targeting oil transfers from Iran to Syria, with Egypt reportedly turning away an Iranian ship that sought to provide oil via the Syrian port city of Baniyas.

This action follows a November 2018 communication by the US Department of the Treasury, whereby 30 separate vessels were designated and sanctions evasion techniques used by the Syrian regime to acquire fuel for its military activities were also identified.

The 70 percent of Syria's population which is now held in thrall by Assad has meanwhile had to suffer chronic fuel shortages, and rationing at petrol stations, even as regime loyalists get preferential access to fuel.

Another question that naturally arises is how more sanctions will help when the US has failed to police its existing restrictions effectively?

For instance, Assad's cousin Rami Makhlouf, who in 2008 was designated a beneficiary and facilitator of public corruption in Syria by the US Department of the Treasury, maintains a global empire comprising of, among other things, multi-million dollar properties in Dubai and numerous UAE based businesses.

These corporate networks have allowed Makhlouf and his family to 
evade sanctions and support the Syrian war economy without curtailing their obscenely ostentatious lifestyles.

The US has declined to pressure its allies into freezing these assets, which would have steeply raised the cost for those who support Assad in his brutal quest to reconquer Syria and extinguish resistance to his rule.

In fact, both the UAE and Bahrain (which hosts the US' fifth fleet) have resumed diplomatic relations with the Assad regime, thereby breaking from the Arab League's decision to shun the Syrian regime. 

Any eventual victory by Assad will be extracted through a lavish spilling of more Syrian blood

This resumption of ties by these Gulf States was not contingent on any concessions by Assad such as an amnesty for males who have fled the country or joined rebel groups, and the United States has been unable to shape these events in any meaningful manner.

The incoherence of US policy towards Syria becomes even starker when one factors in the substantial divergence that has occurred between the White House and Congress.

The Trump administration has seemingly committed itself to withdrawing from Syria and abandoning its erstwhile Kurdish allies, who continue to control a third of Syria and much of what's left of its indigenous petroleum production capacity.

Read more: 
Syrian dissident photographer Cesar wins human rights award

Although the administration now appears to have slowed its promised withdrawal and will apparently still maintain a skeleton force comprised of a few special operations units, the United States is clearly disengaging from Syria.

The stark reality is that the war in Syria, though far from over, has reached a cynical new phase, where regional and global powers are carving up the carcass of the Syrian state to assert their own interests.

For the United States, this involves holding on to strategic territories, such as the garrison of al-Tanf which blocks a major highway connecting Iraq's port of Basra to Damascus and thus denies Iran its purported "land bridge" to ferry supplies to its proxies in Syria and Lebanon.

The United States also seeks to protect and further Israeli interests which has been rewarded by US recognition of the universally condemned annexation of the Golan Heights.

Regional and global powers are carving up the carcass of the Syrian state to assert their own interests

Israel, in return, has been executing bombing campaigns against Iranian and Syrian targets that would be legally problematic for the United States as the US military currently lacks legal authorisation to proceed with a campaign beyond targeting Islamic State [IS] operatives.

None of these aims, however, involve safeguarding the Syrian people.

In the coming months a number of configurations are possible: Turkey, previously the guardian of Idlib's rebel forces may strike a bargain with Russia to sacrifice the territory in order to pursue its containment of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Kurdish Syria. Alternatively, the SDF may choose to strike a bargain with Assad to formally acknowledge his rule while maintaining some measure of autonomy.

Regardless of what happens, the expansion of sanctions by the US will ensure that the conflict continues to fester, and that any eventual victory by Assad will be extracted through a lavish spilling of more Syrian blood.

The passage of the Caesar Act, in other words, will provide a patina of moral authority to the US Congress, but bereft of any substance.

Owais Zaheer is a freelance data researcher who has previously written for a variety of publications including The Friday Times, Muftah and the Daily Times. He is a researcher at 416LABS. 

Follow him on Twitter: @EastofAden

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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