Bashar Al Assad and wife Asma (left) vote at a polling station in Damascus in the parliamentary elections Image Credit: AFP

The U.S. imposed sanctions on Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad, his wife and his inner circle as the Trump administration increases pressure on the regime in an effort to end its nine-year civil war.

The State Department said it was imposing 39 sanction designations "as the beginning of what will be a sustained campaign of economic and political pressure to deny the Assad regime revenue." "Many more sanctions will come until Assad and his regime stop their needless, brutal war," Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said in a tweet.

Syria dismissed the measures, calling them a new form of terrorism and a violation of international law. "The U.S. administration talking about human rights in Syria exceeds the ugliest forms of lies and hypocrisy," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by state news agency SANA. It demanded the immediate lifting of the restrictions, "as they are a crime against humanity."

The Syrian economy is already under Western sanctions, with the European Union last month extending its measures by a year. The U.S. moves aim to force Assad's regime to negotiate an end to a civil war that began in 2011 and has killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians.

James Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative for Syria engagement, said in a briefing Wednesday the Syrian conflict needs to be brought to an end. "We will use the tools provided to us in this sanctions legislation and other sanctions authorities to drive home to not only the Assad regime, but to those who support him, be they governments - and you know the two states we're talking about - or be they individuals, banks, whatever, that we're coming after you."

Those two states are Russia and Iran, which have provided military support to Assad as he has regained control of most Syrian territory but are in no shape to help him financially as he looks out on a landscape of economic ruin.

As news of the sanctions emerged, Syrian Prime Minister Hussein Arnous met an adviser to Iran's first vice president in Damascus to discuss enhancing cooperation in the face of new economic challenges, SANA reported. The Islamic Republic is also under a strict U.S. embargo.

A senior U.S. official said Wednesday that pressure from the Trump administration won't be a one-time affair, but will continue until Assad and his allies accede to a political solution to the conflict.

Divided Elite

The economic situation and divisions in the ruling elite and other groups that have supported Assad are "worse than at any time, including when the opposition military forces were in the suburbs of Damascus and held Aleppo and much of the rest of the country," Jeffrey said.

"We're seeing some signals, however modest, out of Moscow - from non-official but authoritative sources - that they're having some doubts about where they're going with Assad as they well should."

The United Nations estimated in 2018 that the war cost Syria $388 billion in economic damage. The Syrian pound, which was at about 50 to the dollar when the conflict erupted in March 2011, is spiraling out of control.

Before the sanctions were announced Wednesday, Syria devalued its currency to 1,250 to the dollar, from 704. The pound is trading at about 2,800 to the dollar on the black market.

'Five-Star Real Estate'

Some of the new sanctions are aimed at high-end development projects in Syria, according to the Treasury Department.

"After forcing millions of Syrian citizens to flee from their homes throughout the Syrian civil war, the Assad regime and its supporters are now pouring resources into building luxury real estate developments," the Treasury said in a statement. "To make way for five-star real estate, the regime has evicted and razed the property of tens of thousands of residents from areas in Damascus that were until recently working class neighborhoods sympathetic to the opposition."

The U.S. designations employ a range of sanctions authorities to target the Assad regime, including the Caesar Act provision of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, which provided for sanctions on individuals supporting the Syrian government, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a separate statement on Wednesday.

"Since the 2011 start to the Syrian conflict, the Assad regime has committed innumerable atrocities against Syrians, including arbitrary detention, torture, sexual violence, and murder," the White House said. "These despicable acts have devastated the country's people, infrastructure, and economy, displacing more than half of Syria's population."