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While You Weren't Looking

Is Syria’s Assad on the Edge?

New U.S. sanctions come into force next week, threatening the country’s fragile economy and dealing a fresh blow to the regime.

People wave Syrian national flags and pictures of President Bashar al-Assad during a demonstration against U.S. in Damascus on June 11.
People wave Syrian national flags and pictures of President Bashar al-Assad during a demonstration against U.S. in Damascus on June 11. LOUAI BESHARA/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly newsletter focused on non-coronavirus news.

Here’s what we’re watching this week: New U.S. sanctions against Syria could push its economy over the edge, Trump threatens the International Criminal Court, and Australia examines its own record on the deaths of indigenous people in police custody.

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New U.S. Sanctions Take Effect Next Week

Syria’s collapsing economy is set to suffer another blow next Wednesday, when new U.S. sanctions come into force imposing penalties against any global actor that does business with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which received bipartisan support in Congress and was passed as part of the annual defense spending bill, sets up the most punishing sanctions on the regime since the Syrian civil war began nine years ago. They are intended to pressure the embattled Assad into enacting human rights reforms.

On Monday, the top Republicans and Democrats from the congressional foreign affairs committees called on the Trump administration to vigorously enforce the new measures once they go into effect. “The regime and its sponsors must stop the slaughter of innocent people and provide the Syrian people a path toward reconciliation, stability and freedom,” they said in a statement. But critics of the Caesar Act fear that it could make life even harder for Syrian civilians and will likely have knock-on effects for Lebanon’s fragile economy.

Spiraling crisis. While Assad appeared to be emerging victorious from the brutal war and talk had turned to reconstruction, a spiraling economy is now threatening his grip on power. The toll of years of war and corruption has been compounded by the deep economic crisis in neighboring Lebanon, Syria’s main conduit to the outside world. More than half of Syrian citizens struggle with access to food and the value of the Syrian currency has plummeted 70 percent since April.

Under pressure. Anti-Assad protests—rare since he brutally regained control of most of the country—broke out in the southern city of Sweida on Sunday and continued sporadically throughout the week, calling for the president’s resignation. While the crowds were modest, the demonstrations were unusual, as Sweida has remained loyal to the regime. Pockets of protest have broken out elsewhere in the country, including in Daraa—where the 2011 Syrian uprising began.

On Thursday, Assad sacked Prime Minister Imad Khamis, who had held the job since 2016. No formal explanation was given, but the move was widely interpreted by observers as a bid to diffuse growing anger over the economic crisis. Assad may now face his greatest challenge yet, as the grievances that sparked the 2011 uprising not only persist but have been exacerbated in the intervening years by sanctions, war, and corruption, as Charles Lister writes in Politico Magazine.


What We’re Following

Trump sanctions the ICC. The Trump administration announced plans on Thursday to impose economic sanctions and visa bans on officials at the International Criminal Court (ICC) who are investigating allegations of rape and torture against U.S. soldiers who served at CIA interrogation sites in Afghanistan. While U.S. skepticism of the international court in The Hague predates President Donald Trump, it has escalated during his tenure.

Unlike many of its allies, the United States is not a signatory of the Rome Statute that created the court. Afghanistan joined the ICC in 2017, enabling it to bring the case against the U.S. troops. The move puts ICC civil servants in the crosshairs of sanctions usually reserved for despots and war criminals, FP’s Robbie Gramer and Jack Detsch report.

Australia examines its record on race. Almost three weeks since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, activists around the world are calling for renewed attention to racial injustice within their own countries. In Australia, tens of thousands of people took to the streets on Saturday in solidarity with U.S. demonstrations and to protest the treatment of Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders, who were only given full citizenship of Australia in 1967. Since 1991, 434 indigenous people have died in police custody in Australia.

Indigenous people are jailed at a vastly disproportionate rate, accounting for 30 percent of those behind bars despite making up just 3 percent of the population. The Australian government has condemned the protests for going ahead during the coronavirus pandemic, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison calling for police to charge protesters who take to the streets this weekend for breaking restrictions.

Hong Kong crackdown. Hong Kong police are establishing a new unit that will enforce the territory’s controversial new security law announced by China last month with the intent of crushing dissent in the territory. The new police “action arm” will have investigative and intelligence-gathering capabilities, Hong Kong’s security chief, John Lee Ka-chiu told the South China Morning Post in an interview, hinting that the new service would also work in collaboration with police from mainland China. Activists in Hong Kong have long feared the open intrusion of mainland security services, which previously worked illegally in the city to kidnap and threaten dissidents.


Keep an Eye On 

Spreading violence in the Sahel. Ten soldiers were killed and six injured in an attack on a military post in the Ivory Coast, near the country’s border with Burkina Faso, on Thursday. It was the deadliest attack in the West African country since 2016. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but experts fear that violence by militant groups aligned with al Qaeda and the Islamic State in the border regions between Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger may spread to neighboring countries on the African coast.

Social programs under strain in Nigeria. The collapse in global oil prices and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic are straining Nigeria’s economy, and proposals to dramatically cut funding for primary health care and education have sparked outrage. Lawmakers are expected to vote on the measures in the coming weeks. If passed, they would see spending on local primary health care services cut by more than 40 percent, likely affecting maternity care, immunization programs, and family planning services. Funding for universal basic education would be reduced by over 50 percent.


Foreign Policy Recommends

The ongoing U.S. protests against police brutality are unprecedented in both their size and their diversity. A tectonic shift appears to be underway, as U.S. citizens outside of communities of color come to understand the threat that racial injustice poses not just for their fellow Americans but for the country’s ideals at large, as Theodore R. Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, writes in National Review.

“At a time when political and partisan polarization seem to doom the prospect of good governance, Americans across lines that typically divide us have come together daily, for weeks on end, to compel a change in behavior by the state and its agents, aligning us more closely to our professed principles,” he writes.


That’s it for this week.

For more from FP, visit foreignpolicy.com, subscribe here, or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or corrections to newsletters@foreignpolicy.com.

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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