Syrians fear knock-on effects of US ‘Caesar Act’ sanctions

The new sanctions, the heaviest to date, are going to hit Syrian workers hardest

FILE - In this January 13, 2010 file photo, Syrian employees stack packets of Syrian currency in the Central Syrian Bank in, Damascus, Syria. In Syria nowadays, there is an impending fear that all doors are closing. After nearly a decade of war, the country is crumbling under the weight of years-long western sanctions, government corruption and infighting, a pandemic and an economic downslide made worse by the financial crisis in Lebanon, Syria's main link with the outside world. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

With new sanctions set to be imposed on the Syrian government on June 17, civilians in regime-held areas of the country are concerned that only they will be affected by the new restrictions.

Passed by US Congress in December last year, the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act - named after the Syrian Military Police photographer who smuggled out 55,000 photos showing systematic torture in Syrian regime prisons - is seen as the heaviest sanctions to date, as the measures additionally target any person or business making transactions with the regime or military contractors.

The sanctions also specifically target people engaging in construction or engineering services as well as natural gas and petroleum production for the Syrian government.

The Caesar Act aims to halt Assad’s attacks on Syrians and usher in a new government, which “respects the rule of law [and] human rights”.

Though Syrians like farmer Zahid – who’s name has been changed to protect his identity – believe the new sanctions will inadvertently affect him and his family.

"Of course, it will only affect civilians at the end of the day," Zahid, now in his forties, told The National from his hometown of Daraa, often referred to as the birthplace of the revolution.

Seeing as government ministries are directly impacted by the sanctions, Zahid predicts there will then be less support for him to plant crops and therefore will make less money.

“I was discussing this point with my peasant friends and we are concerned that we will not find agricultural equipment or that the demand to sell and export our goods will decline,” Zahid explained.

“Equipment and materials to plant my land are getting really expensive not only everyday, but almost every hour.”

Farouk, 30, – who requested his last name be withheld – lives in rural Damascus with his wife and four children and holds similar concerns on the eve of the new sanctions.

He works in a gas station, bringing home a daily wage largely dependent on tips, totalling an average of $50-$60 a month, down from around $100 a month at the start of the year.

"I am afraid that the gas station I work at will close, and then I will have no source of income," Farouk told The National.

In the past week, the Syrian Pound (SYP) has hit a record low against the dollar, and has lost 50 per cent of its value in less than a year.

The historic rate of 3,200 SYP to the dollar last week was triggered by the panic selling of pounds ahead of the Caeser Act being activated.

Inflation is making basic necessities unreachable for some civilians, with prices for bread, as an example, increasing by 100 per cent.

Nick Grinstead, non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute Syria Program, predicts that inflation, as a result of the weakening Syrian Pound, will accelerate.

"The government [will be] forced to use middlemen traders not targeted by the sanctions to establish trade links with rebel-held northern Syria in order to plug gaps in imports such as grain and petrol," Mr Grinstead told The National.

These middlemen may also benefit financially from funnelling imports into regime areas, as well as pro-government businessmen who will engage in price gouging.

But the Caesar sanctions are of course not the sole reason for the current dire economic conditions in Syria.

The war-torn economy had largely relied on dollar transfers by the diaspora to their families in Syria, though the regime recently cracked down on transfer companies, therefore creating a shortage of foreign currency.

The crash of the Lebanese economy also plays a role, as many Syrians had dollars deposited in the neighbouring country’s banks.

Mr Grinstead highlighted the Syrian regime and Central Bank have been trying to collect as much foreign currency as possible over the last few months in order to stabilise the Pound, with little effect.

“The Syrian Central Bank has likely run out of … foreign currency needed to prop up the Syrian lira,” Mr Grinstead said, referring to the other name used for the local currency.

Zahid in Daraa expressed his opinion as to whether the regime was trying to stabilise the economy: “It is not about trying, it’s about whether it is able or not. I think it does not have any ability to stabilize anything.”

Farouk offered a similar sentiment. “Do we have a government?,” he asked.

“We have been seeing the same names of non-expert officials in different positions. We do not want to see the same names anymore.”

The Caesar Act outlines that the new raft of sanctions would be lifted if a long list of criteria were met, including: the cessation of airstrikes on civilians, the release of political prisoners, safe return of displaced Syrians, and a meaningful accountability for war crimes.

International Crisis Group Senior Syria Analyst, Dareen Khalifa told The National this new set of sanctions are unlikely to bring about any change in action by the regime.

“Looking at how the regime reacted in the past it’s reasonable to deduct that the regime will not offer concessions when put under pressure, especially ones that do not directly threaten its existence,” Ms Khalifa said.

While Mr Grinstead also stated this set of sanctions will not bring about Assad's downfall based on how resilient the regime has been in years past, Zahid remains hopeful, even as he continues to live in a regime held area.

“Signs of his weakness are so clear,” Zahid said. “[Even] the supporters of the regime will not handle economic sanctions while Assad’s family is enjoying a luxury life.”

“Syrians sacrificed everything they have for Syria, they have nothing left,” he continued. “It’s Assad’s turn to sacrifice, he needs to pack, take his wife and children and leave so that 23 million Syrians can have a life and a country.”

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