Iran has condemned new United States sanctions that punish any company that works with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, saying they were “cruel” and would exacerbate suffering in the war-torn country.
On Thursday, the leader of the Hezbollah movement also denounced the restrictions, calling the move an American attempt to “starve” Syria and neighbouring Lebanon, which share close financial relations.
The Caesar Act came into force on Wednesday with the first designations targeting 39 people or entities, including al-Assad and his wife Asma.
“[Iran] does not respect such cruel and unilateral sanctions waged as bullying and considers them to be economic terrorism against the people of Syria,” said foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi.
The sanctions were “against international laws and human values” and would only “exacerbate the suffering of Syria’s people” amid the coronavirus outbreak, he said in a statement.
Mousavi vowed Tehran would maintain its economic ties with Damascus.
Iran has also been under US sanctions since 2018 when Washington unilaterally withdrew from a landmark nuclear agreement with world powers and reimposed them, targeting the crucial oil and banking sectors.
The Caesar Act is named after a Syrian former military photographer who fled in 2014 at great personal risk with 55,000 images of brutality in al-Assad’s prisons.
Hassan Nasrallah, head of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, also condemned the new US sanctions.
“The Caesar Act aims to starve Lebanon just as it aims to starve Syria,” Nasrallah said in a televised speech on Tuesday.
“Syria has won the war … militarily, in security terms and politically,” he added, describing the Caesar Act as Washington’s “last weapon” against Damascus.
The US law targets companies that deal with al-Assad’s government, which Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia support in Syria’s nine-year conflict.
It imposes financial restrictions on the Damascus government to compel it to halt “attacks on the Syrian people”, and it is expected for the first time to target Russian and Iranian entities active in Syria.
The Syrian government and loyalist businessmen are already targeted by US and European sanctions.
After nine years of war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, Syria is mired in an economic crisis compounded by a coronavirus lockdown and a dollar-liquidity crisis in Lebanon, a major conduit for government-held regions.
A large chunk of Syria’s population is living in poverty, prices have soared and the value of the Syrian pound has hit record lows against the dollar on the black market.
Nasrallah also accused the US of engineering the collapse of the Syrian currency but vowed al-Assad’s allies would stand by the regime.
“The allies of Syria, which stood by its side during the war … will not abandon Syria in the face of economic warfare and will not allow its fall, even if they are themselves going through difficult circumstances,” he said.
Lebanon too is experiencing the worst financial meltdown since the end of its own 1975-1990 civil war, as well as being rocked by months of anti-government protests.
“The Americans are pressurising the Bank of Lebanon to prevent it from putting enough dollars into the market,” Nasrallah said, alleging Washington was just using claims that Hezbollah was sending dollars into Syria as a pretext.
He also accused the US government of trying to get Lebanon to push Hezbollah into giving up its weapons but vowed it would never do so.
Nasrallah called on the Lebanese government “not to submit” to the Caesar Act, noting the country is likely to be deeply hurt if it does.
He said Syria was Lebanon’s only land route to the world, so trade would be harmed. Losing the land route with Syria would force Lebanon to turn to Israel, which Nasrallah suggested is the aim of the US sanctions.
The US has warned al-Assad he will never secure a full victory and must reach a political compromise.
Kelly Craft, the US ambassador to the United Nations, urged him to accept a Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire, elections and political transition along with UN-led talks.
“The Assad regime has a clear choice to make: pursue the political path established in Resolution 2254, or leave the United States with no other choice but to continue withholding reconstruction funding and impose sanctions against the regime and its financial backers,” Craft said.