Assad faces crisis in Syria as US launches sanctions amid growing protests against his rule

Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is facing new threats to his leadership

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is facing a perfect storm of economic collapse, a bold new wave of US sanctions and growing protests against his rule, threatening to weaken his grip on power.

This week a new round of sanctions targeting key supporters of the Syrian government is due to come into force under the Caesar Act, which is named after a defector who documented horrific human rights abuses carried out by the regime.

Unlike previous US sanctions, the Caesar Act targets all of Assad's financial supporters worldwide, including Russia, and could seal off remaining cash flows to the regime. 

The sanctions also target a wider array of assets linked to Syrian funds, including the engineering, construction and military aircraft sectors. 

Omar al-Shogre from the US-based NGO Syrian Emergency Task Force, which pushed for the bill, called June 17 a “big day”.

“June 17 is just the start. It opens the door for more and more sanctions. For the next 10 years, those involved with the regime will be punished,” said Mr Shogre, who was tortured in one of the government's most infamous prisons before he was freed in 2015.

The Caesar Act targets all of Assad's financial supporters worldwide, including Russia, and could seal off remaining cash flows to the regime. - Reuters

“The law is there to protect the rights of Syrians, so there is no reconstruction, no normalisation with the regime. It will block the regime from buying what it needs to construct bombs which kill civilians.”

Caesar, whose identity is protected for his safety, is a former military police photographer who smuggled out of Syria tens of thousands of photographs which documented systematic torture and extrajudicial killings carried out by the government inside its prison.

His testimony before the US Congress in 2014 spurred lawmakers - unable to hold Assad and his government to account in a court of law - to set about trying to bring about punitive measures on the leader and his inner circle.

Syrian defector codenamed Caesar smuggled out of Syria evidence which showed the government was torturing and murdering detainees in its prisons - Getty

The sanctions came  into effect as the value of the Syrian pound plummeted to a record low, sparking fears of deepening poverty and starvation.

“The Syrian economy is in a meltdown [and] the regime is clearly struggling to fill its coffers and is unable to halt the country’s rapid economic decline,” wrote Elizabeth Tsurkov, a leading Syria expert, in a new report for the Centre for Global Foreign Policy this week.

She  urged the US administration to ensure that any attempts to topple the regime through sanctions did not pile further misery on the Syrian population.

“US policy should balance between maintaining pressure on Damascus in the hope of causing regime collapse, denying a political win to a government that gassed and starved its own people, and mitigating the further stress placed on Syria’s civilians,” Ms Tsurkov wrote.

Rami Makhlouf, Syria's top tycoon, has begun publicly airing his grievances, revealing a power struggle within the ruling family as it tries to cement its power after nine years of war - AFP

In recent weeks, Assad and his cousin Rami Makhlouf, one of Syria's wealthiest businessmen, have publicly fallen out.

The spat, combined with the fresh sanction, could make other loyalists nervous enough to start pulling their money out of the country. And  if their woes continues, perhaps even their once-unwavering support.

“As several longtime loyalists have suggested to me in private in recent days, this extraordinary internal crisis could spark a change at the top,” wrote Charles Lister, a fellow at the Middle East Institute in a recent article for Politico.

“In their eyes, this moment may already represent a greater threat to Assad’s survival in power than the one posed by the opposition at its peak in years past.”

Assad's authority has also been undermined by a rare display of dissent in the southwestern town of Suweida,  where hundreds of protesters have taken to the streets over the past 10 days, demanding that he is toppled.

The protests are unusual as Suweida is mostly inhabited by the Arab Druze minority, which has largely stayed out of the conflict with Assad due to fears of religious persecution.

Syrian forces began a crackdown on the protests this week, with at least seven protesters arrested in Suweida.

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.

“We promised to keep things peaceful … but if you want bullets, you shall have them,” the dictator reportedly said in a recent message passed to the Druze community, suggesting that a more brutal crackdown could soon follow.