More Syria sanctions in pipeline under US Caesar Act, US envoy to Syria says

US objectives in Syria are to end the near decade-long conflict, diffuse tensions, and secure a political solution that will pave the way for remaining foreign forces to leave the country, a senior US diplomat told Al Arabiya English.

The official also said that sanctions placed on Syria have been effective, and there are more sanctions in the pipeline.

Seen as the pathway out of conflict in Syria, the Caesar Act has been effective since mid-2020 when the US slapped sanctions on Syria that aim to put economic pressure on the Syrian government, including President Bashar al-Assad. Thirty-nine entities that conduct business with the regime, including Russian, Iranian and other regional counterparts, have also been subject to sanctions.

“The Caesar Act has been very effective in pressuring the Assad regime and its enablers,” said Joel Rayburn, US Special Envoy for Syria in the US State Department, in an interview with Al Arabiya English.

“And yes, you can expect more severe Caesar Act sanctions in the future,” he said.

Since June 2020, the Syrian economy has reached a new low following the imposition of additional sanctions on the Assad regime and its major supporters in the Middle East region. The crisis in neighboring Lebanon has also dealt a heavy blow to Syria as the countries’ economies are inextricably linked.

Unlike previous sanctions, the Caesar Act implements the most wide-ranging set of measures against the Syrian government to date and 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, according to the Brookings Institution.

A picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is seen on a door of a butcher shop, during a lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, in Damascus, Syria April 22, 2020. (Reuters)A picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is seen on a door of a butcher shop, during a lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, in Damascus, Syria April 22, 2020. (Reuters)

The objective of the ‘summer of Caesar,’ as it is popularly known in the US State Department, has been to minimize the military support and the illicit funding pathways between the Assad regime and its largest supporters in the region, including Hezbollah and the Iranian regime.

The imposition of sanctions will continue indefinitely until all parties accede to the implementation of Security Council Resolution 2254, which expresses support for a Syrian-led political process, calling for a ceasefire and a political settlement to the current crisis.

“We expect [sanctions] to continue on a regular basis. And inside the US government, we have a whole machinery now that is built to impose these sanctions on a routine basis and to continue to uncover the sources of support that the Assad regime uses,” he said.

Prior to the Caesar Act, the Syrian regime had avoided the US Treasury’s blacklist by funneling money through Lebanon’s banking system, which Iran uses to funnel money to the Assad regime.

“We [have] been able to stop some of that,” Rayburn said, pointing to the fact that the collapse of the Lebanese financial sector has made it hard for anyone, not just the Assad regime, to get foreign currency out of Beirut’s financial sector.

Regardless, while Lebanese banks hole up foreign currency in the country, fuel and funds have continued to flow from Lebanon to Syria. Where authorities in Lebanon have said they will crack down on the issue, trucks are still seen crossing the border.

Vehicles are seen at Masnaa border crossing between Lebanon and Syria, Lebanon November 1, 2018. Picture taken November 1, 2018. (Reuters)Vehicles are seen at Masnaa border crossing between Lebanon and Syria, Lebanon November 1, 2018. Picture taken November 1, 2018. (Reuters)

“We are watching [the smuggling issue] very closely. And we have very robust sanctions authorities that we can use when we uncover that kind of activity. So, people should beware,” Rayburn added.

ISIS attacks increase

ISIS attacks in Syria and its neighboring countries have increased significantly in 2020, with the group aiming to retake territory and resources, according to the Middle East Institute. The drawdown of US forces from Syria and Iraq has left significant security gaps, and there is a threat they will be filled by ISIS or its regional affiliates.

“It is going to require continued military pressure, law enforcement pressure, and local political pressure to make sure that ISIS or other groups similar to it, al-Qaeda in Syria, for example, cannot take advantage of, let’s say, unstable conditions on the ground to try to make a comeback,” Rayburn said.

“We have been very fortunate that the US government has maintained support for our local security partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces and others in Syria, the Iraqi security forces and the [Kurdish] Peshmerga in Iraq, in order to keep that pressure on Daesh,” he added.

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