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Can the new US sanctions on Syria bring down Assad’s regime?

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A Syrian man walks through the destruction of the Salaheddine neighborhood in eastern Aleppo, Syria - File, Jan 2018
A Syrian man walks through the destruction of the Salaheddine neighborhood in eastern Aleppo, Syria - File, Jan 2018   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Hassan Ammar
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The toughest US sanctions yet on Syria kick in this week, and they’re expected to strangle the country’s already teetering economy.

Washington says the move aims to punish Bashar al-Assad and his top officials for crimes committed since the start of the nation’s bloody civil war in 2011.

The sanctions effectively prevent anyone around the world from doing business with Syrian officials or state institutions, or from participating in Syria’s reconstruction. They also target anyone involved in smuggling goods to Syria, mostly from neighbouring Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan.

The Syrian government has called the sanctions "economic terrorism". They come at a very tricky time for the Syrian economy, already struggling with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and a financial meltdown in Lebanon – Syria’s main link to the rest of the world.

The sanctions heap pressure on Assad. He may have won the military war against his opponents, but he now has to contend with the risk of renewed civil unrest, as more than 80 per cent of Syrians live in poverty, according to United Nations data.

What will the sanctions change?

US and EU sanctions have already frozen the assets of the Syrian government and hundreds of companies and individuals. Washington also bans Americans from exporting to Syria or investing there and bars oil and gas transactions with the country.

The new sanctions, the toughest yet, will target players anywhere in the world, regardless of nationality, who attempt to do business with Syria in the construction, engineering, energy, or aviation sectors.

For the first time, the new sanctions also target those dealing with Russian and Iranian entities in Syria.

"This legislation will close all the doors on the Syrian regime and any person that deals with it," said Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen who is a member of the Caesar Act team, a group that advises US authorities on implementing the sanctions.

Caesar is the code name of a Syrian forensic photographer who documented and exposed the brutality of Assad’s forces by smuggling out thousands of photos of torture victims.

How will they impact Syria?

The sanctions are expected to cut off Syria from the global economy even more dramatically.

They come just as Syria is trying to court foreign investors to finance its reconstruction, and on the back of a major financial crisis in Lebanon.

Banks in Lebanon have long served as a gateway to the world for Syrian businessmen, officials and regular people: that’s where many of them kept their money. Now measures aimed at stopping a run on Lebanese banks have also prevented Syrians from withdrawing cash.

"Lebanon was not only Syria's economic get-out-of-jail card, but it is the beating heart of Syria's business community," Danny Makki, a Britain-based Syrian journalist and political analyst, wrote recently for the Middle East Institute.

The mere prospect of more US sanctions has already been hurting Syria's economy.

The national currency, the Syrian pound, has tumbled in recent weeks, reaching a record low to the dollar. Prices of basic goods have soared, while some staples such as sugar, rice and medicine are becoming hard to find.

Brewing unrest

As the Syrian economy collapses, there's also a growing risk of renewed civil unrest.

Last week, in the southern city of Sweida, a government-controlled area, dozens of people took to the streets to protest spiralling inflation, with some even calling for Assad’s downfall.

"He who starves his people is a traitor," some of the protesters chanted.

Syria specialist and author Diana Darke believes that Syria could be at a crossroads.

"I think the pressure on the regime has never been so intense as it is now," she told Euronews in a TV interview.

"He (Assad) has tried to show that he's in control. But I think increasingly the signs are that he's not, actually, and that he's very worried (…) My hope is that the regime will implode from within."

Watch highlights from the interview in the video player above.