In a sweeping move earlier this week, the United States officially imposed a new round of sanctions on the Syrian government—effectively cutting off the already war-torn country from the world economy.
The legislation that made this possible, the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, was named in honour of a Syrian photographer who documented human rights violations in Syrian prisons. It was supported on both sides of the aisle, with 37 Democrats and 21 Republicans co-sponsoring the bill in the House. President Trump signed the legislation into law in December of 2019. However, it didn’t come into effect until more recently on June 17th, 2020.
Supporters of the act claim that it is intended to restrict any flow of money to the country’s President, Bashar al-Assad. They believe Assad should step down due to his record of human rights violations. The U.S. has been involved in trying to depose this government since the Syrian civil war first began in 2011. Yet despite nine years of a brutal war, Assad remains in power. Many feel that these sanctions will be the last resort for the U.S. to try to provoke an uprising amongst the Syrian people that would oust Assad from power once and for all.
Yet, many critics claim that imposing this new round of sanctions is fundamentally inhumane. They believe it will have crippling effects on an economy where 83% of the population already lives in poverty. These sanctions make it effectively impossible for businesses to operate in Syria, impeding the country’s ability to redevelop and rebuild itself from the destruction of its civil war that finally seems to be coming to a halt. Because of this, these sanctions make it clear that the economic situation, and therefore life in Syria, will not be able to return to normal under the current government.
These sanctions have been imposed for an indefinite period, adding on to a history of U.S. sanctions that have targeted the Syrian government since 1979. However, the newest round is more comprehensive than ever before. This is because they forbid any businesses from working with the existing government. For the first time, this also includes any foreign entities. Consequentially, the sanctions have rippling effects throughout countries that have close connections with Syria such as Lebanon, Russia, and Iran.
The Caesar Act specifically designates 39 entities to be sanctioned both within Syria’s borders and abroad. 20 out of these 39 entities are private companies that predominantly have ties to Syria’s oil, gas, and energy industries – some of the main sources of revenue for the Syrian economy. The sanctions also target numerous construction companies. These companies could have played a greater role in rebuilding Syria’s damaged infrastructure had sanctions not been imposed. Most of these sanctioned companies are based directly within Syria, although there are also numerous companies named that are based in other countries including Lebanon, Austria, and Canada.
The sanctions against Lebanese entities could have particularly damaging effects. This is because they may exacerbate the current economic crisis in Lebanon that is expected to force 60% of the population to descend into poverty by the end of the year. The U.S. has already completely cut off the flow of dollars into Lebanon. This is even though their currency, the Lebanese pound, is pegged to the U.S. dollar. The newest sanctions will inevitably lead to a further deterioration in the standard of living for the Lebanese people and the nearly one million Syrian refugees who have gained asylum in Lebanon during the civil war.
In addition to the private companies named in the sanctions, they also name numerous governmental and military organizations. These include the Syrian Arab Army, Hezbollah, and the Assad royal family itself. Supporters hope that this will limit the influence of the current government and its allies throughout the region.
The impact of this newest round of sanctions was immediately apparent in world markets, as it caused the Syrian pound to drop 3,500 points against the U.S. dollar. The act has also banned any dollar transactions from taking place within Syria, which further restricts the country from engaging in any type of international trade.
Although supporters justify these sanctions by claiming that they will lead to the fall of Assad, there is little historical evidence to support this assertion. The United States has never been effective in enacting regime change through the imposition of sanctions, which is evident through how existing governments have retained power in heavily sanctioned countries such as Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea.
Rather than harming the upper echelons of the government as intended, in actuality, these sanctions end up having the greatest harm on ordinary citizens who struggle to survive amidst the catastrophic economic situation. In a country like Syria, where the people have already experienced one of the greatest humanitarian crises the world has seen since World War II, these sanctions may restrict the country from embarking on its path towards gradual recovery and a stable future.
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