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Syria sanctions aimed at removing Bashar Assad from power

Syrian President Bashar Assad has been inching toward claiming victory in a brutal nine-year civil war, with the main rebel and jihadi forces holed up in a single province along the Turkish border. But Syria’s devastated economy might accomplish what the war could not: undermine the Assad regime’s hold on power with a big push…

Syria sanctions aimed at removing Bashar Assad from power

Syrian President Bashar Assad has been inching toward claiming victory in a brutal nine-year civil war, with the main rebel and jihadi forces holed up in a single province along the Turkish border.

But Syria’s devastated economy might accomplish what the war could not: undermine the Assad regime’s hold on power with a big push Wednesday from the Trump administration.

Damascus on Wednesday announced a sharp devaluation of its currency as the U.S. government imposed the toughest sanctions yet on Syria’s battered economy. The sanctions target any company or entity that conducts business with Syria and specifically homes in on Mr. Assad and his wife, Asma.

“Today’s designations send a clear message that no individual or business should enter into business with or otherwise enrich such a vile regime,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement.

Syria accused officials in Washington of acting like “gangsters and bandits.”

The sanctions are part of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019, named after a Syrian military photographer who smuggled out 55,000 digital images of the destruction the civil war has caused.

Syria faces a massive rebuilding task after nearly a decade of war and will rely heavily on foreign investors to help foot the bill. But economic hardship and goods shortages have already begun to chafe, and public demonstrations against Mr. Assad have broken out in various cities in recent months.

Since the war began in 2011 after pro-democracy protests, at least 400,000 Syrians have died, according to estimates by the United Nations special envoy to Syria. Millions have fled Syria and millions more have been displaced within the country.

The U.S. and European Union imposed tough sanctions on Assad and his inner circle in the early days of the war in Syria, in particular for the regime’s expected use of chemical weapons, but enforcement has been partial at best. The latest U.S. sanctions, targeting the companies and governments that want to help the Assad government rebuild, are expected to be much tougher to evade.

Trump administration officials said the primary thrust of the sanctions is to force the regime to stop abusing human rights and to enter into talks with anti-government forces on a political solution to the war.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Kelly Craft credited earlier sanctions with preventing Mr. Assad’s armies from obtaining a military victory much sooner. Mr. Assad pledged this year to achieve complete victory in the war “sooner or later” after the military made gains in northwestern Syria and gained control of the Aleppo province.

“Our aim is to deprive the Assad regime of the revenue and the support it has used to commit the large-scale atrocities and human rights violations that prevent a political resolution and severely diminish the prospects for peace,” she said.

As part of the sanctions, the State Department announced it was designating 39 people and entities, including Mr. Assad and his wife, in “the beginning of what will be a sustained campaign of economic and political pressure to deny the Assad regime revenue and support it uses to wage war and commit mass atrocities against the Syrian people.”

Under existing U.S. sanctions, any American is prohibited from doing business with the Assad regime. The new sanctions target citizens of any country who work with the Assad government. The act specifically cites the Iranian militias and Russian mercenary forces that played a key role in turning the tide of battle in Mr. Assad’s favor.

Syria’s allies push back

Countries such as Russia that see a major profit opportunity in helping Syria rebuild denounced the Trump administration’s move.

Russian Ambassador to the U.N. Vasily Nebenzia accused the U.S. of trying to “overthrow the legitimate authorities of Syria,” Reuters reported. Iran, meanwhile, is reportedly gearing up to provide Syria with additional economic support to cushion the pain of the sanctions.

“We have strong economic relationships with Syria, and as for the latter, [it has] a credit line in Iran,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told Russia’s Sputnik news. “We and our friends will work to develop the economic situation in Syria and enhance economic cooperation between Iran and Syria.”

The sanctions also target those who conduct business that supports the regime’s military activities as well as its aviation and oil and gas production industries, but the State Department said that move was tailored to allow humanitarian assistance to continue.

“It is time for Assad’s needless, brutal war to end,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. “Today, the Assad regime and those who support it have a simple choice: take irreversible steps toward a lasting political solution to the Syrian conflict … or face ever new tranches of crippling sanctions.”

The U.S. sanctions met with mixed reviews. Many applauded the uptick in pressure on the regime, but some Syria watchers said the move was made too late and was unlikely to undermine the dogged Mr. Assad.

“This sends a clear message to the international community that the United States will not tolerate efforts to normalize ties with [Mr. Assad], who continues to terrorize the Syrian people,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James E. Risch, Idaho Republican.

House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, New York Democrat, called the sanctions a “welcome but overdue step,” given the law’s passage a year ago.

Safwan Qurabi, a member of Syria’s parliament, told The Associated Press that the U.S. sanctions “aim at pitting the Syrian citizen against the government.”

“The law is an invitation to inner discord and chaos,” he said, adding that the government is taking steps to handle the sanctions.

Damascus has struggled to prop up the value of the Syrian pound as the threat of U.S. sanctions loomed larger. Over 80% of Syrians are living in poverty, according to the United Nations, and some wondered Wednesday whether the Syrian people, rather than the regime, could be hurt the most in the short run.

Basic home essentials such as sugar, rice and medicine are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain, and many have begun stockpiling such goods out of fear of surging prices.

With the economy in tatters and public unrest growing, Mr. Assad is “actually the weakest he’s ever been in the past 20 years,” Sam Dagher, a nonresident fellow at the Middle East Institute.

“Outwardly, he’s the victor. But really, he’s only able to hang on because his two principal patrons, Iran and Russia, want him there. The moment they withdraw the support, he’s finished.”

But Mr. Assad has proved a wily survivor over the years by holding on to power when many were ready to write him off.

“Nine years of war and the death of hundreds of thousands have not changed Assad’s course or caused him to question the rectitude of his position,” Joshua Landis, a leading U.S. scholar on Syria and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in an interview this week.

“Can sanctions accomplish what war could not? It seems unlikely,” Mr. Landis said.

⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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U.S. bid to reimpose Iran sanctions opposed by allies, foes

Allies and foes alike rejected the Trump administration’s effort over the weekend to reimpose global economic sanctions on Iran, setting up a high-stakes showdown at the United Nations that could again leave Washington abandoned on the world stage. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Saturday night that the U.S. has officially triggered a “snapback” provision…

U.S. bid to reimpose Iran sanctions opposed by allies, foes

Allies and foes alike rejected the Trump administration’s effort over the weekend to reimpose global economic sanctions on Iran, setting up a high-stakes showdown at the United Nations that could again leave Washington abandoned on the world stage.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Saturday night that the U.S. has officially triggered a “snapback” provision within the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran. That move, he said, will reimpose a set of harsh U.N. sanctions on Tehran that had been lifted as part of the Obama-era agreement.

But other parties to the deal, including staunch American allies in Europe, say the U.S. has no standing because President Trump withdrew from the pact in 2018. They say the sanctions relief granted to Iran should remain in place.

The administration is debating the issue after a multifront effort to squeeze Iran politically and financially. Mr. Trump last week presided over historic diplomatic deals that Israel signed with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. He said other Arab nations, perhaps Middle Eastern power Saudi Arabia, could soon follow suit. Such a development would isolate Iran and deepen Tehran’s bitter divisions with other countries in the region.

The sanctions move also is setting the stage for a major American power play as Washington searches for ways to punish nations that do not support its Iran gambit.

U.S. officials argue that because Iran has violated terms of the nuclear deal and because the United Nations has not extended an arms embargo on Tehran set to expire next month, the world community should unite and reimpose all financial penalties.

“The Trump administration has always understood that the greatest threat to peace in the Middle East comes from Islamic Republic of Iran, whose violent efforts to spread revolution have killed thousands and upended the lives of millions of innocent people,” Mr. Pompeo said in a statement. “History shows appeasement only emboldens such regimes. Thus today, the United States welcomes the return of virtually all previously terminated U.N. sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terror and anti-Semitism.

“The United States expects all U.N. Member States to fully comply with their obligations to implement these measures,” he said.

Iran said the move is entirely illegitimate.

“The U.S. knows that its claim is empty, illegal and ineffective,” said Saeed Khatibzadeh, a spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, as quoted by the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency.

Iranian resistance leaders back the administration’s decision and say that snapping sanctions back into place will put pressure on leaders in Tehran.

“Faced with executions and massacres, the people of Iran urge the United Nations, and the U.N. Security Council in particular, to restore snapback sanctions stipulated” on Iran, said Maryam Rajavi, acting president of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran, which advocates for the overthrow of Iran’s government.

“Otherwise, [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] will continue to ravage the nation as his regime’s survival depends on murder and suppression,” she said Friday at the group’s Trans-Atlantic Summit on Iran Policy, a virtual event that included speeches by current and former American political officials.

For the U.S. and its sanctions effort, it’s unclear exactly what happens next. The issue is expected to dominate discussion this week at the annual U.N. General Assembly, which is being held virtually this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A U.S. effort to extend the arms embargo on Iran failed in a U.N. Security Council vote. An American push to reimpose sanctions seems headed for a similar fate because virtually all other stakeholders oppose Washington.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told Security Council members over the weekend that he cannot take any action on the issue, according to Reuters, suggesting that the international body is mostly unified in opposition to the U.S. China and Russia strongly oppose the administration’s position.

Even America’s closest allies have made clear where they stand. Britain, France and Germany wrote in a joint letter over the weekend that the administration’s move “is incapable of having legal effect and so cannot bring in to effect the procedure.”

“It flows from this that any decisions and actions which would be taken based on this procedure or on its possible outcome would also be incapable of having any legal effect,” wrote the three nations, all of which remain committed to the 2015 nuclear deal and have tried to salvage it.

The administration seems to have several tools at its disposal. Mr. Trump reportedly is planning an executive order that would punish any nation engaging in conventional weapons deals with Iran. Such an order could help keep some provisions of the Iran arms embargo in place after it formally expires next month.

Specialists also say Washington could seek separate penalties for countries that don’t recognize the return of U.N. sanctions.

“Any country that refuses to abide by the reimposed restrictions may tangle with the full weight of U.S. secondary sanctions,” said Andrea Stricker, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Critics of the European position say Britain, France and Germany are standing in the way because they want to make money doing business with Iran.

“It’s an act, really, of supreme cowardice,” former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani said Friday night at the virtual gathering of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. “All these European governments claim to be dedicated to freedom and democracy and the love of human rights, and wanting to see a world in which people are treated fairly and decently. … The French have abandoned those principles; so have many other European countries.

“I don’t understand it, except greed,” he said.

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US sanctions top International Criminal Court officials |NationalTribune.com

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has condemned “unprecedented” sanctions imposed by the United States on prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and one of her top aides in retaliation for a probe into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. The Hague-based tribunal said the sanctions announced by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo against Bensouda and another senior official, Phakiso Mochochoko,…

US sanctions top International Criminal Court officials |NationalTribune.com

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has condemned “unprecedented” sanctions imposed by the United States on prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and one of her top aides in retaliation for a probe into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan.
The Hague-based tribunal said the sanctions announced by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo against Bensouda and another senior official, Phakiso Mochochoko, were “serious attacks” against the rule of law.
Pompeo announced the moves on Wednesday, saying that “the ICC continues to target Americans”.
The ICC said in a statement the new measures “are another attempt to interfere with the Court’s judicial and prosecutorial independence and crucial work to address grave crimes of concern to the international community”.
The sanctions include a freeze on assets held in the US or subject to US law and target Bensouda and the court’s head of jurisdiction, Mochochoko.
Pompeo also said individuals and entities that continue to materially support Bensouda and Mochochoko would risk exposure to sanctions as well.
“We will not tolerate its illegitimate attempts to subject Americans to its jurisdiction,” Pompeo said.

Why is the US targeting the International Criminal Court? | Start Here

The war crimes court said it “continues to stand firmly by its personnel and its mission of fighting impunity for the world’s most serious crimes”.
The ICC will continue its investigation into possible war crimes by the United States and its allies in Afghanistan. 
The State Department also restricted the issuance of visas for individuals Pompeo said were involved in the court’s efforts to investigate US personnel, though he did not name those affected.
Member countries of the International Criminal Court hit out against the “unacceptable” sanctions.
“I strongly reject such unprecedented and unacceptable measures against a treaty-based international organisation,” said O-Gon Kwon, president of the ICC’s Assembly of States Parties.

Pompeo says the move is part of the administration’s pushback against the world court for investigations into the US and its allies [Nicholas Kamm/Pool via Reuters]

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was concerned by Pompeo’s announcement, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.
Dujarric said that “we trust that any restriction taken against individuals will be implemented consistently” with a decades-old US deal with the United Nations to host the world body’s headquarters in New York.
‘Stunning perversion’
Bensouda was given the go-ahead by the court in March to investigate whether war crimes were committed in Afghanistan by the Taliban, Afghan military and US forces.
The US revoked Bensouda’s entry visa last year in response to the possible Afghanistan inquiry. But under an agreement between the UN and Washington, she was still able to regularly travel to New York to brief the UN Security Council on cases it had referred to the court in The Hague.

What doe these people have in common? Myanmar generals accused of atrocities Saudi officials linked to Jamal Khashoggi’s murder President Assad for mass abuses in Syria ICC prosecutors investigating war crimes The Trump administration has imposed sanctions on all of them. pic.twitter.com/Xdb0Za9U63
— Human Rights Watch (@hrw) September 2, 2020

Rights groups immediately condemned the US designations.
Richard Dicker, Human Rights Watch international justice director, said it was a “stunning perversion of US sanctions.”
“The Trump administration has twisted these sanctions to obstruct justice, not only for certain war crimes victims, but for atrocity victims anywhere looking to the International Criminal Court for justice,” he said.
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US sanctions Hong Kong’s Carrie Lam over protest crackdown |NationalTribune.com

The administration of United States President Donald Trump on Friday slapped sanctions on Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam as well as 10 other individuals for, “undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy and restricting the freedom of expression or assembly of the citizens of Hong Kong,” according to a statement on the US Treasury’s website. The blacklistings…

US sanctions Hong Kong’s Carrie Lam over protest crackdown |NationalTribune.com

The administration of United States President Donald Trump on Friday slapped sanctions on Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam as well as 10 other individuals for, “undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy and restricting the freedom of expression or assembly of the citizens of Hong Kong,” according to a statement on the US Treasury’s website.
The blacklistings are being implemented under an executive order Trump issued in mid-July aimed at punishing China over a new sweeping national security law.
“The 11 individuals designated today have implemented policies directly aimed at curbing freedom of expression and assembly, and democratic processes, and are subsequently responsible for the degradation of Hong Kong’s autonomy,” the US Treasury statement said. “The United States will use the authorities in the Executive Order to continue to pursue those that implement these nefarious policies.”
Treasury accuses Lam of being, “directly responsible for implementing Beijing’s policies of suppression of freedom and democratic processes,” citing her support for a change in the territory’s extradition arrangements with mainland China that sparked months of massive protests in Hong Kong.
Other individuals blacklisted by the Treasury on Friday include Hong Kong’s current police commissioner, Chris Tang, as well as his predecessor Stephen Lo; the territory’s secretaries for security, justice, and constitutional and mainland affairs, and others.
“The United States stands with the people of Hong Kong and we will use our tools and authorities to target those undermining their autonomy,” US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in the statement.
The sanctions issued on Friday freeze any US asset of the blacklisted individuals and generally bar Americans from doing business with them.
Friday’s round of sanctions marks the latest escalation in tensions between Washington and Beijing.
With less than 100 days to go until the US presidential election, relations between the two countries have grown increasingly acrimonious as the Trump administration takes a hard line against Beijing over issues ranging from Hong Kong, to China’s treatment of Uighurs, to Chinese tech firms and apps.
Last month, Washington sanctioned a member of China’s powerful Politburo and three other senior officials, accusing them of serious human rights abuses against Uighur Muslim minorities in China’s western Xinjiang region.
Late on Thursday, Trump issued executive orders that will ban US companies and individuals from engaging in any transactions with short-video app TikTok, which is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, as well as messaging app WeChat, which is owned by China’s Tencent Holdings.
China’s foreign ministry said on Friday it firmly opposes the executive orders.
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