BEIRUT / AMMAN (Reuters) – Last year, President Bashar al-Assad appeared to be on the brink of crowning military victories by easing his diplomatic isolation and recovering more from Syria without firing a bullet.
FILE PHOTO: A woman walks past a poster representing Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Syria, March 5, 2020. REUTERS / Yamam Al Shaar / File Photo
The Kurdish allies of the United States not only invited government forces to return to the northeast, but businessmen from the once hostile United Arab Emirates visited Damascus to explore investment opportunities and regional trade had begun to recover.
Thanks to the intervention of Russia and Iran on their behalf, almost all of Syria’s major cities and towns are under government control, and the rebels who have fought since 2011 to overthrow Assad are now confined to territory near the Turkish border. .
But today, the mood in Damascus is grim.
Assad’s hopes for rehabilitation have been frozen by new US sanctions that are likely to scare everyone but his closest friends and deter the investment he needs to carry out the promised reconstruction.
The economy, already devastated by a decade of war, is in serious trouble, not only because of sanctions but also because of the consequences of a financial crisis in neighboring Lebanon that has drowned the dollars.
While sanctions alone are unlikely to bring Assad down, experts say it will be more difficult for him to consolidate profits and rebuild patronage networks in loyal areas that paid a heavy price in the battle.
With Syria divided into three, heavily sanctioned and ruled by an outcast, comparisons are being made with Iraq over the years between Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled it.
“The cascading effect of the sanctions could undermine Assad’s ability to re-extend or maintain control over much of the country. I don’t think it will topple him anytime soon, but it will restrict his ability to stay in control, “said David Lesch, a Syria expert and professor of Middle Eastern History at Trinity University in Texas.
NOT “MAGIC WAND”
The war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced more than 11 million from their homes, about half of the pre-war population. The once productive economy has suffered hundreds of billions of dollars of destruction.
As Assad steadily regained ground, Syrians in government areas expected better times.
But its already battered purchasing power has been demolished this year by a collapse in the Syrian pound. The currency, stable at around 500 per dollar for several years, started to fall last year and hit a low of 3,000 this month.
Assad relies on the allies who saved him in battle, Russia and Iran, to help him again. But with both sanctioned, neither of the means to offer the investment Damascus hoped for would flow from countries like the United Arab Emirates, China and India, which are now at risk of US sanctions if they deal with Syria.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said at a press conference in Damacus on Tuesday that the goal of new US sanctions imposed in a law called the Cesar Law was to create hunger and instability.
Syria could depend on its friends and allies, he said: “This needs a little patience. A week has passed since Cesar passed. No one has a magic wand to say that Russia has to give this or Iran that. ”
Syria’s allies in an Iran-backed alliance known as the axis of resistance are looking for ways to avoid sanctions, a regional official told Reuters. Iran has provided Syria with lines of credit and oil during the war. “The axis of resistance will work to open gaps,” said the official.
Washington, which once armed some of Assad’s enemies, says the goal is to hold Damascus accountable for war crimes and dissuade him from pressing for war. Sanctions exempt humanitarian aid.
Washington will apply this summer “unprecedented political and economic pressure on the Assad regime to return to the political process,” said United States Special Envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn. Sanctions are not Washington’s only tool.
Although President Donald Trump last year ordered the withdrawal of US forces, they remain in the east, denying Assad control of oil fields and farmland and providing a security umbrella for an autonomous Kurdish-led area. Turkish forces in the northwest also obstruct Assad’s recovery from the last rebel stronghold.
Assad’s dominance over some reclaimed areas is unstable, including the south, which is still restless two years after the rebels’ defeat. The extreme economy recently sparked protests in Sweida, a loyal area in the south.
Financial problems led the state to confiscate vast assets held by Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, formerly a pillar of the ruling elite.
“Assad’s strategy and the promise he has been selling to his followers has always been that we have to win this war militarily … and be patient and eventually the Americans and the Europeans will tire and the sanctions would be lifted or eased” . Aron Lund, a member of the Century Foundation, said.
“If poverty becomes extreme poverty and hunger becomes famine over time and the patronage network … begins to weaken and disappear, we could begin to see the rise of different threats that could be very, very serious to Assad “.
Additional reports by Laila Bassam; Editing by Peter Graff