As the US rolls out new sanctions on Assad, Syria braces for economic devastation

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma vote in Damascus during parliamentary elections in April 2016.

Beirut, Lebanon (CNN)The United States has rolled out fresh sanctions that aim to drive Syrian President Bashar al-Assad back to a UN-led negotiating table and threaten to devastate Syria's already floundering economy.

On Wednesday the US State Department and Treasury Department released 39 targets for sanctions, including Assad and his wife Asma al-Assad, marking "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," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
"We anticipate many more sanctions and we will not stop until Assad and his regime stop their needless, brutal war against the Syrian people and the Syrian government agrees to a political solution to the conflict as called for by UNSCR 2254," he said, referring to a UN Security Council Resolution calling for a ceasefire and political settlement in Syria.
The first tranche of economic penalties come as part of the newly enforced Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which is expected to trigger the most wide-reaching and aggressive economic penalties ever imposed on Syria, potentially targeting its energy, construction and banking sector.
    The bill was named after a former photographer for the Syrian military, codenamed Caesar, who leaked a trove of photographs showing dead and mutilated prisoners in Assad's jails.
    "Caesar," the man credited with smuggling out 50,000 photos said to document Syrian government atrocities, listens to his interpreter as he prepares to speak at a US Congressional briefing in July 2014.
    US Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft told the Security Council on Tuesday the move was a bid to "prevent the Assad regime from securing a military victory, and to steer the regime and its allies back toward Special Envoy (Geir) Pedersen and the UN-led political process."
    Syria angrily hit back at the sanctions on Wednesday, saying the US move "exceeds the ugliest forms of lies and hypocrisy."
    In a statement to state-run news agency SANA, Syria's Foreign and Expatriates Ministry also questioned US moral authority, in the light of recent widespread protests over the deaths of several black Americans in police custody. The US, it said, "is the last one who has the right to talk about the human rights, because the US administrations have established their state upon the culture of killing, disregarding any value of laws or conventions," it said.
    China and Russia also criticized the plan on Tuesday. China's UN Ambassador Zhang Jun called the sanctions "inhumane." Russia's UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia accused Washington of attempting to "overthrow the legitimate authorities of Syria," according to Reuters.
    The Caesar Act, a bipartisan Congress bill, has received broad support from Syria's diaspora community, many of whom were driven into exile by Assad's brutal oppression of largely peaceful protests that began in 2011. Assad has been repeatedly accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity in his military campaign to quash Syria's armed opposition. He is also widely believed to have been behind multiple chemical attacks in rebel-held areas. Assad's government has repeatedly denied the charges.
    But even among Syria's opposition, many expect that the US sanctions will also deal a crushing blow to Syria's civilian population. The poverty rate stands at over 80%, according to the UN. Syria's currency collapsed rapidly in recent months on the heels of an economic crisis in neighboring Lebanon, where many Syrian businessmen circumvented international sanctions during the war. Much of Syria lies in ruin.
    "(Syria's) economy has become something similar to the economy of the West Bank, an economy reliant on aid," Syria analyst and nonresident scholar at the DC-based Middle East Institute Karam Shaar told CNN. "It's not really a functional economy. It's basically something that survives only because the West keeps injecting money into it."
    US sanctions threaten to cut off injections of cash from donations and remittances that keep the country afloat. Because the Caesar Act includes secondary sanctions -- punishing non-US people and entities for transactions with regime-held Syria -- they will likely create "phobia" and "panic from banks" around dealing with Syria, said Shaar, choking off financial transactions to the country.
    He also warned that humanitarian exemptions for food and medicines included in the Caesar Act may have no effect, a situation that would be similar to Iran, which has also struggled to obtain medicinal supplies despite US waivers.
    "When you have an act that destroys the exchange rate of a country -- and you know that 60% of the inputs for the pharmaceutical industry are actually imported -- you are affecting medicines," said Shaar. "The Caesar Act will affect everything."
    "Unless the Syrian regime accepts to negotiate, I project a famine and it's going to be terrible."
    The sanctions' knock-on effects in neighboring Lebanon are also expected to further cripple its collapsing economy. Lebanon's banking sector, which is buckling under a severe liquidity crisis, is believed to possess billions of dollars of Syrian assets. Because of this, the international financial system may soon deem Lebanon's banks untouchable, said Shaar.
    Tensions in Lebanon have reached fever pitch in recent weeks, as its currency continued to tank, stoking riots across the country. On Tuesday night, the leader of the Iran-backed militant and political group Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, delivered a fiery televized address vowing to prop up Syria economically and calling on Lebanon to spurn US pressure to abide by the Caesar Act.
    Nasrallah also accused the Trump administration of "laying siege" to Lebanon's economy in an effort to pressure Hezbollah, and suggested that the country could move deeper into the economic orbit of Iran, Syria and China, doing away with US influence.
    Lebanon's political establishment is composed of a hodge-podge of pro-US and pro-Iran politicians. Hezbollah, which intervened in the Syrian war on Assad's behalf, is the most powerful political force in Lebanon.
    The US has repeatedly said that it supports reforming Lebanon's deeply sectarian political leadership and combating corruption, and has not yet publicly pre-conditioned economic support for Lebanon on Hezbollah's disarmament. But local media and politicians have speculated that the international community has shunned the country as part of a ramped up international effort to dislodge the armed group.
    "(Lebanon's government must) demonstrate that they're willing to take tough decisions to reform," said Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker at a talk at the Middle East Institute earlier this month. "It's hard to see how (Hezbollah) are going to get behind this reform."
    As Assad and his allies double down on anti-US stances, there are few signs the Syrian government intends to return to the negotiating table, and analysts warn that the Caesar Act will do little to hold Assad accountable for his crimes.
    "Caesar's proponents hope that the law will prove a step towards accountability for the regime's terrible crimes," Syria Program Director at Synaps Group Alex Simon told CNN. "While that goal is unassailable, there's no evidence to suggest that Caesar would achieve this."
      Simon describes the sanctions as a "policy of piecemeal, reflexive escalation, for which ordinary Syrians pay the price."
      "People today are selling off what few assets they still have in order to feed their families. Some are selling kidneys," said Simon. "Pharmaceutical shortages are so bad that people have taken to Facebook to pool information on who has spare medicine that may help save lives."