Last December, U.S. President Donald Trump adopted extraordinarily tough and wide-ranging new sanctions against the Syrian government and its supporters. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and other senior officials have been subject to U.S. sanctions since 2011, but the new measures, which took effect in mid-June, are sweeping: they apply to anyone, Syrian or non-Syrian, who aids or does business with the Assad regime or with any entities it controls.
The policy has earned praise in some quarters—compared to many Trump-era Middle East actions, it is at least coherent. But it fails to advance any core American interests. Moreover, it further immiserates the Syrian people, blocks reconstruction efforts, and strangles the economy that sustains a desperate population during Syria’s growing humanitarian and public health crises.
According to U.S. Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey, the objectives of this scorched-earth policy are to turn Syria into a “quagmire” for Russia and to gain enough leverage to reconstitute the Syrian government along the lines that the United States imposed on Japan after World War II. The United States seeks a “dramatic shift” in the Syrian regime’s behavior, Jeffrey asserted: in theory, systematically bankrupting the Syrian government could force Assad to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which requires Syrian political reform. To increase the pressure, the United States has endorsed Israeli strikes against Syrian territory and Turkish expropriation of Syrian energy resources. It has also closed the main highway to Baghdad to choke off trade.
In 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama and European leaders embarked on a crusade to force Assad from office. They presumed that a virtuous alternative government waited in the wings—but the Western-educated, Syrian opposition figures whom the United States and the European Union had cultivated turned out to hold no sway on the ground, and American-led attempts to unify the Syrian opposition failed.