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Buying hard currency, in Idlib. Photo: Anas Alkharboutli/picture alliance via Getty

New U.S. sanctions targeting Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime and those who fund it are likely to increase pressure on the Syrian government and deepen the country's economic crisis.

Why it matters: Assad has survived nine years of civil war, but Syria's dictator now faces protests in the street, a currency shock and internal divisions highlighted by a public feud with his billionaire cousin, Rami Makhlouf. The people of Syria continue to suffer.

Details: The Caesar Act, named for a photographer who secretly documented the regime's humanitarian abuses, targets 39 individuals and entities, many of whom are already under sanctions.

  • Assad's wife, Asma, and other members of his family were sanctioned for the first time on Wednesday.
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the sanctions were intended to target "anyone doing business with the Assad regime, no matter where in the world they are." That applies primarily to Assad's patrons, Russia and Iran.
  • The administration says the sanctions would be lifted if Assad stopped attacking civilians and addressed humanitarian concerns or agreed to a political transition. Neither seems likely.

The big picture: While the sanctions may increase the pressure on Assad, they'll also deepen the economic crisis facing the long-suffering Syrian people. The downturn has been compounded by an equally deep financial crisis in neighboring Lebanon.

  • "Ordinary Syrians, meanwhile, the supposed beneficiaries of Caesar, will see the act push them faster towards famine," writes the FT's David Gardner.
  • "Economic sanctions are often a blunt instrument and many analysts fear the Caesar Act might miss its target. Instead, it could deliver a devastating blow to what remains of the Syrian economy after getting on for a decade of war," writes the BBC's Jeremy Bowen.

What to watch: Assad and his backers have won back most of the territory once held by rebels, but much of the country is destroyed.

  • "[A]bout a third of the homes have been damaged or destroyed, leaving half the population displaced," writes WaPo's Sarah Dadouch.
  • The U.S. and the EU say they won't participate in the rebuilding process as long as Assad remains in office.

The latest: Syria's fast-depreciating pound has made what economic activity is still happening in Syria that much harder.

  • Assad has responded to the crisis by firing his prime minister and is attempting to squeeze revenues out of others accused of corruption, including Makhlouf. Protests are now being seen in areas that hadn't previously risen up against Assad.
  • "Assad himself seems to have been rattled by scenes from the protest, which are reminiscent of the first uprising against his leadership which triggered the Syrian civil war in 2011," write the Telegraph's James Rothwell and Josie Ensor. He has threatened yet another violent crackdown.

Go deeper

Sep 20, 2020 - World

European countries say U.S. has no authority to reimpose Iran sanctions

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Photo: Laszlo Balogh/Getty images

The U.S. has no authority to reimpose sanctions lifted in accordance with the Iran nuclear agreement after President Trump pulled out of the deal in 2018, France, Germany and the United Kingdom wrote in a joint statement Sunday.

Why it matters: The U.S. announced it will reimpose sanctions and an arms embargo against Iran as part of the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" campaign against the Islamic Republic, which it has accused of financing terrorism and other destabilizing activities across the Middle East.

3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Kellyanne Conway's parting power pointers

Kellyanne Conway addresses the 2020 Republican National Convention. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

Kellyanne Conway has seen power exercised as a pollster, campaign manager and senior counselor to President Trump. Now that his term in office has concluded, she shared her thoughts with Axios.

Why it matters: If there's a currency in this town, it's power, so we've asked several former Washington power brokers to share their best advice as a new administration and new Congress settle in.

3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

GOP holdouts press on with plans to crush Cheney

Screenshot of emails to a member of Congress from individuals who signed an Americans for Limited Government petition against Rep. Liz Cheney. Photo obtained by Axios

Pro-Trump holdouts in the House are forging ahead with an uphill campaign to oust Rep. Liz Cheney as head of the chamber's Republican caucus even though Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told them to back down.

Why it matters: What happens next will be a test of McCarthy's party control and the sincerity of his opposition to the movement. Cheney (R-Wyo.) is seen as a potential leadership rival to the California Republican.

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