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On Tuesday, Sept.15, President Donald Trump confirmed longstanding reports that he had at one point in 2017 put forth a plan to assassinate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Then-Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis was at the time vehemently opposed to the plan.
According to The Hill, ”The president’s disclosure that an assassination operation was discussed came as part of a lengthy diatribe against Mattis, but it confirmed a piece of reporting from 2018 that Trump disputed at the time.” The reporting in 2018 came from Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward and his then newly released book Fear: Trump in the White House.
But ever since this news broke of Trump confirming the 2018 reports, the mainstream media has been awash with headlines heralding Mattis and others as protecting against President Trump’s Syrian assassination plan. The U.S. mainstream media’s analysis of this story, along with U.S. policy in Syria generally, begins and ends with praise of Gen. Mattis.
But the American press has failed to use this opportunity to draw attention to the long-standing and disastrous impacts of U.S. policy in Syria under successive administrations—in particular, the civilian impacts of sanctions.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; Photo Credit: President of the Russian Federation
Since 2011, Assad and other senior Syrian officials have faced harsh U.S. sanctions. However, as of mid-June, Trump enacted new sanctions applicable to a sweeping array of the Syrian populace. That includes any Syrian or non-Syrian who aids or does business with the Assad government, or with any entity related to it.
This may, on its face, seem like a constructive policy move considering that Assad and his regime are responsible for the killing thousands of Syrians, over 14,000 of whom were tortured to death.
In fact, according to a press release published on Friday, Sept. 18, reported on by Human Rights Watch and other media outlets, the government of the Netherlands has decided to use UN Torture Convention in an attempt to hold the Assad regime accountable for the widespread human rights abuses in Syrian prisons. This action could ultimately help bring a case against the Syrian government in the International Criminal Court.
The problem with the U.S. sanctions on Assad, though, is that they don’t actually impact him or his leadership directly, while destroying the lives of Syrian civilians. This is according to a new co-written article by Joshua Landis and Steven Simon titled “The Pointless Cruelty of Trump’s New Syria Sanctions.”
We spoke with Landis about the real and lasting impacts of the Trump administration’s new sanctions on Syria prior to the news breaking about Trump confirming he had at one point planned to assassinate the Syrian president.
The following is the transcript of an interview with Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, conducted on Aug. 21 by TRNN producers Andrew Corkery and Steve Horn. The interview was edited for length and consistency.
Andrew Corkery: Joshua, thank you so much for coming on to discuss the issues involving Syria. Given what you outlined in your recent article, could you describe the human cost and societal toll of these draconian new sanctions that the United States has put on the state of Syria?
Joshua Landis: Yes, the last batch of sanctions are devastating, because not only do they target certain industries, like the electric industry, the construction industry. They are designed, as they’re stated, to stop any rebuilding of Syria and reconstruction of Syria in its tracks. And they apply secondary sanctions.
That means that any Lebanese, Turk, Jordanian, or anybody in the world who gets involved in trying to do these things that could be for purely humanitarian reasons can be sanctioned. And their bank accounts are frozen. You know, terrible things can happen to them. So it’s really been a devastating new round of sanctions.
And it’s going to mean that Syria remains in the dark because most Syrians only get a few hours of electricity a day. Schools, half the schools in Syria, are either badly damaged or destroyed. They’re trying to rebuild them and send kids back to school. It’s going to keep people illiterate. There’s not going to be electricity in schools and reconstruction of houses and we know how many houses have been destroyed and how many Syrians have been driven into external flight: six to seven million internally. And about the same number of people have been forced out of their homes for some period of time and need to rebuild.
I’ve been trying to send money to a friend of mine who lives in Deir ez-Zur, Syria. Deir ez-Zur Syria is along the Euphrates, it’s devastated. He was a refugee four times because he fled from Deir ez-Zur to Raqqa. When the rebels took over Deir ez-Zur, then ISIS took over Deir ez-Zur, he went to Aleppo, and then he had to go to Damascus. And his family was devastated by this because his income was gone. They live terribly. This is an impossible situation.
And this policy is meant to hurt people in Syria. So there’ll be a general uprising against the Assad regime. And that is the stupidest policy you can imagine. Because Assad just won a nine year civil war in which half a million people were killed. He’s not going to be thrown out of power by some people demonstrating in the streets. There’s no more opposition left. They’ve either given up their guns [or] they’ve been defeated by America like ISIS was, which was the biggest chunk of the opposition. Then there’s other groups like the Al Qaeda group that now runs the area of Idlib, Syria, along with a bunch of other militias, but they’re nothing compared to what the opposition used to be.
And America abandoned the Syrian opposition, for better or for worse, and there’s not going to be an uprising against Assad today. That policy is not going to work. So, all it does is destroy the lives of millions of Syrians.
Corkery: It seems like that to some observers of the region and the American public more generally do not view these new sanctions with the same kind of visceral reaction to violent warfare that would be brought on by the presence of U.S. troops. Could you explain how these sanctions still thrust upon the Syrian people a systemic level of violence?
Steve Horn: I’m just going to jump in for a second. There are historical parallels to be drawn here too because the U.S. for years has had a policy of imposing sanctions on countries all over the world. For example in the 1970s, then-President Richard Nixon ordered the CIA to “make the economy scream” in the country of Chile.
Then later on under the Reagan [and] George H.W. Bush sanctions policies in Latin America in the 1980s economically destroyed a number of countries, including Nicaragua. Then in the 1990s, there was a sanctions campaign against Iraq, under the Clinton administration, where there was a famous interview on 60 Minutes of then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, where she said that the sanctions that killed half a million Iraqi children “were worth it.”
So given that historical context, do you see any parallels between sanctions campaigns of previous administrations and these new sanctions on Syria?
Landis: Absolutely. Look you know, everybody in Washington, when you say this, they all nod their heads. They know that this is a devastating Syria, but they say, “Well, it’s better than dropping bombs.” And that’s the constant refrain you hear from policymakers in Washington.
And, you know, you might agree with that, although I think about the economic impacts, I think that if you killed, you know, 100 Syrians by dropping bombs on them, it will probably be not as bad as the effect of starving hundreds of thousands of Syrians in this way, denying them electricity. They can’t go to schools. How do schools run electricity? You have to have a generator and that takes up lots of petroleum and we have sanctioned any trade on petroleum. We’re doing everything we can to keep them from getting any energy. So they can’t run their electric plants and they can’t, you know, they can’t get their economy running again.
And I know the Albright interview. She had to say that because it’s her policy. But that is the one phrase that’s been connected to her name ever since. You know, she was being honest. And that’s the fact of American policy. Everybody knows it. But, you know, they think it’s virtue signaling to your partners is what it is, if they’re showing the Syrian opposition, and they’re showing the world, “We won’t stand for Assad. We’re going to punish him.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, flanked by former Secretaries of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Colin L. Powell and Madeleine Albright, attends a reception celebrating the completion of the U.S. Diplomacy Center at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. on January 10, 2017; Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State.
But of course, you’re not punishing Assad. Assad is going to eat three square meals a day, even if you have to fly it in from Paris. He is going to live very well and so are the people around him. And it’s the poor that don’t have guns that are not going to get the food. It’s not the rich. And, and this policy is, I can’t say enough bad things about it, but it’s just not good. It’s not good for America. It’s not good for Syrians.
Corkery: To go to a point you brought up in your article, it seems as though this effort by the United States to put these sanctions on Syria is in large part a geopolitical power play to blunt the Russian and Iranian power brokering ability for any agreement that would in theory lead to the end of the Syrian War and or any potential partition of Syria. So basically, fostering these new violent sanctions on the Syrian people America attempts to make the political and economic costs of Russia and Iran’s continued support of Syrian President Assad absolutely unbearable. Would you agree with that statement, and if not, why? If so, would you expand on that analysis by talking about the geopolitics of this situation a bit?
Landis: Well, you know, let’s say we get away from the stated goals of the sanctions. Which are promoting democracy, getting a political transition going in Syria, and fulfilling UN resolutions about a political process. These are the stated goals.
But once the special envoy to Syria, James Jeffrey, lets down his guard, as he did at a think tank function the other day, he said, “Look, my job is to create a quagmire in Syria” A quagmire in Syria.
What does that mean? That means to make Syria into a poverty stricken nation, so that Russia and Iran, its two major backers, have to pour money into it and it becomes a millstone around their necks. And that’s, you know, I assume that is sort of the unalloyed justification that many people in Washington would put for it. You know, you help your friends, Israel and Saudi Arabia and you hurt your enemies, Russia and Iran. And that’s what the U.S. is doing. And if the Syrian people are going to starve in the meantime, that’s the problem of their rulers, and their rulers can always leave if they don’t like it.
But it’s heartless because the rulers aren’t going to leave. We know that. And, and in a sense, we’re setting ourselves up to play a game of chicken with Assad, or with the Iranian government, and or all the governments we have sanctions against to see who’s gonna blink first when they see Syrians starving. And we call these governments heartless, no-good tyrants and so forth. And we expect them to blink? Of course we don’t. We’re just trying to make the price higher for our enemies, Russia and Iran.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (l) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (r) in 2018; Photo Credit: President of the Russian Federation
And you know, the whole world looks at this as a destructive policy. That’s why we just got completely humiliated in the UN, by European nations who would not do snapback sanctions on Iran. Because they see it as heartless. They see it as counterproductive and it’s going to send more waves of refugees right into Europe.
It’s not good for anybody. And it’s not good for the United States, that’s for sure. Because if we do crush these countries, let’s say we get Iran to have a major revolt and it breaks out in a civil war, because that’s the real likelihood of our successful U.S. policy, which is to promote civil war in these countries once they really begin to starve. And that’s what happened to Libya. That’s what’s happened in Syria. That’s what’s happened in Yemen. That’s what’s happened in Afghanistan. That’s what’s happened in Iraq.
Why do we expect a democratic government to take over? I mean, we’ve only done this five times already. So you know, if you are really honest with yourself, we are promoting civil wars, that’s what U.S. policy is doing.