US targets Assad govt and backers with toughest sanctions yet against Syria

US targets Assad govt and backers with toughest sanctions yet against Syria

The aim is to prompt the Syrian president to negotiate an end to the war that has lasted almost a decade.

By
Shirin Jaafari

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A woman walks past a poster depicting Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Syria, March 5, 2020.

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Yamam Al Shaar/Reuters 

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The US State Department announced this week some of its toughest sanctions yet against Syria.

The sanctions are named “Caesar,” the code name for a former Syrian military officer who smuggled roughly 50,000 images and documents out of Syria’s prisons. The gruesome photos showed emaciated bodies of those detainees — men, women, even children.

“Today, we begin a sustained campaign of sanctions against the Assad regime under the Caesar Act. The individuals and entities targeted today have played a key role in obstructing a peaceful, political solution to the conflict.”

Morgan Ortagus, US State Department, spokesperson

“Today, we begin a sustained campaign of sanctions against the Assad regime under the Caesar Act,” spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Wednesday. “The individuals and entities targeted today have played a key role in obstructing a peaceful, political solution to the conflict.”

Related: Syria’s first family is caught in a feud 

The images sparked outrage and set off a yearslong effort to introduce additional sanctions on the Syrian leader and his inner circle. President Donald Trump signed the ensuing Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act into law this past December.

“The sanctions confirm the direction that the State Department is taking,” explained Rime Allaf, a Syrian writer and commentator.

She said American officials have targeted 39 people or entities with ties to the Syrian government.

“Any company, any government, any entity around the world is going to be sanctioned if they deal with the Syrian regime elite who the State Department believes are responsible for committing these atrocities.”

Rime Allaf, Syrian writer and commentator

“Any company, any government, any entity around the world is going to be sanctioned if they deal with the Syrian regime elite who the State Department believes are responsible for committing these atrocities,” Allaf said.

Also on the list, for the first time, is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s wife, Asma al-Assad.

A State Department press statement said she has been designated because “she has become one of Syria’s most notorious war profiteers.”

Related: Remembering Egyptian LGBTQ activist Sarah Hegazi

Born in the United Kingdom, Asma al-Assad Akhras worked as an investment banker in London until 2000, when she married Bashar al-Assad and moved to Syria.

The new sanctions restrict the first lady’s financial dealings, says Ibrahim Olabi, a Syrian lawyer in the UK.

“So, a lot of third parties would now hesitate to engage with Asma because they could face penalty for dealing with sanctioned individuals,” Olabi said.

The new sanctions take effect at an already difficult time for Syrians. The country’s economy has been hit hard by the war and the coronavirus.

One woman in Damascus told The World that she has stopped buying pricier food items like meat. She only buys the essentials now. The woman didn’t want to be identified because she worried she might lose her job for speaking to foreign media.

“Everything is so much more expensive these days. We feel insecure so we are not sure next month or the month later what we’re going to face.”

Woman in Damascus who asked to remain unnamed

“Everything is so much more expensive these days,” she said. “We feel insecure so we are not sure next month or the month later what we’re going to face.”

Related: Afghans in shock after attacks on a maternity hospital and a funeral

Lately, she said, she has noticed longer lines at the market for subsidized goods like rice and sugar.

“We are considering everything else as [a] luxury,” she said.

And with the new US sanctions, she expects the economy to get worse.

“Although we know that the effects won’t be seen suddenly in a few days, we are expecting that the upcoming months would be harder and harder,” she said.

There are already frustrations with the state of the economy. Last weekend, Syrians came out to protest — even in areas usually supportive of the president.

Critics of the Caesar Act say sanctions will only hurt the people.

Related: Syrian officials on trial for war crimes in Germany

“I would be lying if I said there won’t be any impact on regular, average Syrian civilians.”

Jomana Qaddour,  Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, nonresident senior fellow

“I would be lying if I said there won’t be any impact on regular, average Syrian civilians,” said Jomana Qaddour, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC.

“But I think that there are some robust humanitarian exceptions that explicitly discuss food, medicine, and on top of that there’s a lot of civil society organizations that will be monitoring the impact of Caesar,” she said.

Qaddour, who has family in Syria, hopes that the sanctions eventually bring the Syrian government to the negotiating table.

“The hope of these sanctions was that … listen, clearly, [the] military threat hasn’t worked. Upwards of a million people being killed hasn’t worked. Creating half of Syria as a refugee population outside of the country hasn’t worked. Maybe economic pressures might do the trick,” Qaddour said.

For the sanctions to be lifted, the Syrian government will have to fulfill six major demands. Among them, it has to end the bombing of civilians, release tens of thousands of detainees and allow Syrian refugees to return safely to their country.

Syrian officials on trial for war crimes in Germany

Syrian officials on trial for war crimes in Germany

The pandemic has led to delays for many cases across the country, but the court deemed the first criminal trial worldwide on Syrian state torture too urgent to postpone. 

By
Holly Young

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Syrian defendant Eyad A. hides himself under his hood prior to the first trial of suspected members of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s security services for crimes against humanity, in Koblenz, Germany, April 23, 2020.

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The first criminal trial worldwide on Syrian state torture began Thursday in Koblenz, a city on the banks of the Rhine in western Germany.

The pandemic has led to delays for many cases across the country, but the court deemed this too urgent to postpone.

Anwar Raslan, a former colonel, and Eyad al-Gharib, a former security officer. 

The two Syrian defendants, Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib, were arrested early last year — one in Berlin, the other near Frankfurt. Both are believed to have been officials in President Bashar al-Assad’s security apparatus before defecting from their positions and arriving in Germany as refugees, in 2014 and 2018, respectively.

Related: ISIS families held in Syrian camps face uncertain futures. Now, the coronavirus also looms.

The accused face charges of crimes against humanity commited between 2011-2012 — including murder and rape. Raslan, a former colonel and the more senior of the pair, is suspected of complicity in the torture of at least 4,000 people, 58 of whom died as a result, at a detention center in Damascus known as al-Khatib — or Branch 251. Gharib is accused of assistance to torture and murder.

The indictment from the court states prisoners of Branch 251 are believed to have suffered psychological and physical abuse — including beatings, electrocutions and being hung from their wrists — as well as inhumane and degrading conditions.

As joint plaintiffs, six Syrians who were detained and tortured at Branch 251 have the right to appear in court.

“They want to reveal the truth about this whole system. They want to make clear that everybody hears not only what has happened to them, but to others. They know there are so many others that cannot speak anymore because maybe they are afraid or still in detention, or have disappeared and died under torture.”

Patrick Kroker, lawyer representing witnesses and co-plaintiffs in the trial

“They want to reveal the truth about this whole system,” said Patrick Kroker, the lawyer representing witnesses and co-plaintiffs in the trial. “They want to make clear that everybody hears not only what has happened to them, but to others. They know there are so many others that cannot speak anymore because maybe they are afraid or still in detention, or have disappeared and died under torture.” 

Related: Can COVID-19 be contained in war-torn Syria?

Wolfgang Kaleck, general secretary of legal nonprofit European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) in Berlin, says putting two Syrian officials on trial is an important milestone.

“It is very significant because so far Western European countries did only arrest and prosecute those who were fighting in the various militias such as ISIS and others,” Kaleck said. “But to cover the magnitude of what happened in Syria in the last 10 years, we need to investigate the torture regime of President Assad.”

Alongside a network of European partners, civil society organizations and public prosecutors, Kaleck’s organization ECCHR has spent years gathering evidence and testimonies on Syrian state crimes.

The ongoing conflict and no prospect for justice in Syria itself were the main obstacles to prosecutions so far, Kaleck explained. In addition, efforts to put Syrians on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague have failed. Syria is not a signatory to the ICC, and Russia and China have blocked attempts to refer Syrian crimes to the court.

Related: Analysis: Nine years on, we still dream of a free Syria

Universal jurisdiction, a legal principle that allows states to prosecute certain crimes even if they are committed elsewhere, has provided an alternative route to justice.

Germany enacted universal jurisdiction in 2002, and it is under this that the Koblenz trial is taking place. Universal jurisdiction is also behind a number of other ongoing criminal complaints regarding Syrian state torture across Europe.

Yet, the Koblenz trial shows Germany to be at the forefront of this legal wave, something Kaleck ultimately credits to the presence of a large Syrian community in the country.

Mariana Karkoutly, law student and member of nonprofit Adopt a Revolution, is one of many Syrians in Germany who have worked extensively over recent years to gather evidence of torture in state detention centers.

“There is a sense of [a] kind of justice that people can feel that can be delivered,” Karkoutly said. “I feel we are witnessing a historic moment.”

Karkoutly says Syrians like her living in Germany will be watching the trial very closely.

“Today, there’s an acknowledgment that this happened, and this is still happening. So, in this sense, I feel like it’s a moment of hope. … this could be the beginning of a long road towards justice.”

Mariana Karkoutly, law student and member of nonprofit Adopt a Revolution

“Today, there’s an acknowledgment that this happened, and this is still happening,” she said. “So, in this sense, I feel like it’s a moment of hope. For lots of Syrians who I interviewed, it was a moment of, ‘Yes, but this is not the justice we’re looking for. We want to establish justice in Syria.’ But this could be the beginning of a long road towards justice.”

Related: The world must step up to save Syrians displaced from Idlib

As a Syrian human rights lawyer, Anwar al-Bunni has spent the last three decades fighting on behalf of victims of state detention and torture. Now based in Berlin, he has worked alongside ECCHR in recent years. He believes the Koblenz case will go beyond the individual alleged crimes of the defendants and help build evidence of how torture has been used systematically.

“It’s not just justice for the people, it’s justice for Syria,” Bunni said. “These people here that are arrested are parts from the whole machine.”

Syrians back home will be carefully following events in Koblenz, he added: “I think all the Syrians now look for what happened against these criminals: many [are paying] attention; many questions we have.”

Kaleck hopes the Koblenz trail is just the beginning.

“We hope that the upcoming trial will be like an icebreaker,” Kaleck said. “[It] will put a new dynamic on the perpetrator, as well as on the victims side, so Syrians should see that the impunity will not be forever and President Assad and his regime will not be untouchable forever.”