July 30, 2020 | Policy Brief

U.S. Sanctions Assad’s 18-Year-Old Son, Promises More Targets to Come

July 30, 2020 | Policy Brief

U.S. Sanctions Assad’s 18-Year-Old Son, Promises More Targets to Come

The departments of State and Treasury announced the designation yesterday of 14 individuals and entities with ties to the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, including his eldest son, Hafez. Coming after 39 designations in June, yesterday’s action marks the continuation of what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described as “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.”

The escalation of pressure on Assad began last month when the Caesar Act gave the administration new authorities to target foreign nationals that do business with the Assad regime. Since Assad’s scorched-earth offensives have devastated the Syrian economy, the regime relies increasingly on foreign partners to keep it solvent. Yet only nine of the 39 designations in June were imposed pursuant to the Caesar Act, and those nine targets were all Syrian, not foreign.

From a legal perspective, the more notable development in June was the use of Executive Order 13894 to designate members of the Assad family, including Assad’s wife, sister, and sister-in-law. Similarly, the State Department designated the wife and children of Muhammad Hamsho, a Syrian businessman whom the United States sanctioned in 2011 for backing the Assad regime.

At a press briefing yesterday, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and Special Envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn explained, “Regardless of whether these actors are designated pursuant to the Caesar Act itself or under other executive orders, we view them all as in-line – all these designations, I should say – as in-line with the goals of the Caesar Act.” In effect, the administration intends to employ all Syria-related authorities, not just the Caesar Act, to hold the regime accountable for its atrocities.

Rayburn also noted, “It has been such a prominent trend among Syrian regime actors to use their adult family members, whether those are siblings or children, to try to continue business in their place after being sanctioned.” This necessitates the designation of relatives, even if they are not personally implicated in sanctionable conduct.

The president signed E.O. 13894 last October, six weeks before he signed the Caesar Act into law. The immediate impetus was Turkish intervention in northeast Syria, yet the order included authorities intended to complement the Caesar Act, whose passage was almost certain at that point.

The European Union has been designating the relatives of regime insiders since the early days of the war. In 2012, it blacklisted Assad’s wife, Asma, as well as his late mother, sister, and sister-in-law.

At yesterday’s briefing, journalists questioned Rayburn about whether the administration would target foreign nationals pursuant to the Caesar Act, since that authority is the most distinctive provision of the law. In particular, correspondents inquired about potential targets based in the United Arab Emirates, whose government has signaled its interest in repairing relations with the Assad regime.

Rayburn responded, “We can make no exceptions,” even for countries whose policies align with those of the United States on most issues. Via diplomatic channels, Washington had already informed its partners around the globe “to not put us in the position of having to sanction them instead of spending our time sanctioning the Syrian regime and its associates. We’ve made very clear that we will not hold back from doing that.”

At times, the United Arab Emirates has cooperated with Treasury to disrupt Tehran’s illicit financing schemes, yet given its generally poor record of compliance with sanctions on either Syria or Iran, the Emirates may pose the most high-profile test of Washington’s resolve to deal firmly with its friends. Lebanon also harbors extensive networks of firms and individuals tied to the Assad regime. If and when foreign nationals test the administration’s willingness to employ the most powerful provisions of the Caesar Act, the response should be swift and decisive.

David Adesnik is research director and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from David and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow David on Twitter @adesnik. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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