Recent U.S. sanctions against the Syrian government are already hurting U.S. allies in the country’s northeast, and immediate action should be taken to mitigate the unintended consequences, the commander of the U.S.-backed forces in the region said.
Mazlum Abdi, commanding general of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said Washington has yet to act on a “promise” to exempt his Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES) from the most recent sanctions targeting the Syrian government.
“The American representatives here on the ground, including those of the State Department, the Pentagon and the Coalition, have all promised us that the Caesar sanctions are not going to impact us,” Abdi told VOA in a phone interview.
The sanctions, which were imposed last week, are under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, or Caesar Act. It is named after a Syrian military photographer named Caesar who defected from the Syrian regime in 2013 and smuggled out thousands of photos documenting torture of people by the Syrian security forces in government prisons.
The sanctions target companies that work with the Syrian government, particularly those involved in construction, energy and engineering sectors.
Despite U.S. promises that such sanctions only target the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Kurdish officials in the northeast say the U.S. should help them through this crisis.
“We need some concrete steps, especially in terms of support, monetary and financial support, so that we can cope with the difficulties that the sanctions have brought on our region,” Abdi said of the SDF.
The SDF has been a major U.S. partner in the fight against Islamic State in Syria.
Syrian pound drops
The Syrian pound has plummeted further as a result of the sanctions, which Abdi said has resulted in average Syrians increasingly unable to afford to meet their daily needs due to hyperinflation.
To make up for some of the inflation, the SDF-led administration last week announced it would raise the salaries of public servants by 150%. The local government largely relies on military and humanitarian support from the U.S.-led global coalition against IS.
“Since our economy is tied to the overall economy of Syria, where the Syria pound has lost much of its value against the dollar under the embargo, it has had a direct impact on us, as well,” the Kurdish commander said.
The U.S. has also blacklisted more than a dozen senior Syrian government figures, including Assad and his wife, Asma.
“Anyone doing business with the Assad regime, no matter where in the world they are, is potentially exposed to travel restrictions and financial sanctions,” the State Department said in a statement last week.
New US humanitarian support
On Monday, James Jeffrey, U.S. special envoy for the coalition to defeat IS, said the sanctions should not be blamed for the crumbling of the Syrian pound and said humanitarian support will not be impeded by the sanctions.
“We are looking at ways we can enhance our stabilization assistance, for example, in the northeast,” Jeffrey said at a webinar hosted by Washington-based Middle East Institute (MEI).
Jeffrey added that an additional $54 million in support for minority and religious groups “will help the entire situation” in northeast Syria. Next week, a fundraising conference for Syria will be held in Brussels, where the U.S. is expected to donate a “significant amount,” he added.
Charles Lister, a Syria expert at MEI, said though he does not expect Washington to issue an official waiver for northeast Syria, it is likely to answer the SDF’s calls for more financial support.
“I’d be amazed if we didn’t find some way to insulate the SDF from at least being able to continue what it’s been doing up to now,” Lister told VOA, adding, “Whether it’s made public or not, the U.S. may also find mechanisms to assist the SDF in lifting the financial burden resulting from the economic crisis in Damascus.”
Lister argues that Syria’s severe economic crisis would have occurred regardless of the sanctions and that it has raised questions on whether Assad can survive after eight years of war that has ravaged the country.
“When you speak to folks living in regime areas, including some who’ve long stood by the regime, it’s very clear that the economic collapse is driving a level of loyalist concern, division and discontent that just hasn’t been seen until now,” he said.
Rising prices and deteriorating economic conditions have triggered people in some Syrian government-held areas to take to the streets in protest.
According to The Associated Press, one U.S. dollar today is exchanged for nearly 3,000 Syrian pounds.