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U.S. says new sanctions won't hurt Syrian people. Syrians disagree, and they're already hurting.

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People gather for a demonstration in support of Syria's President Bashar Assad and against U.S. sanctions on the country, in Damascus' Umayyad Square, June 11, 2020. LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty

Damascus — The Trump administration unveiled new sanctions on Wednesday aimed at the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The measures, issued under the Caesar Act, specifically target "individuals providing support to the Syrian government" from outside of the war-torn country, according to the White House.

"Since the 2011 start to the Syrian conflict, the Assad regime has committed innumerable atrocities against Syrians," White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said, adding that the "despicable acts have devastated the country's people, infrastructure, and economy."

Syria's economy is indeed devastated, and while the Trump administration insists its sanctions "are not directed at the Syrian people," many Syrians fear that while the measures may increase pressure on Assad's government, they'll also increase the suffering of the country's beleaguered citizens. 

Plunged into poverty

Syria's war has left the economy in tatters, plunging an astonishing 80% of its people into poverty, according to the United Nations

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While there's been relative calm on the country's remaining battlefields, any hopes of economic recovery this year were quashed by business closures implemented in March to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

The World Food Program says food prices in Syria have doubled in a year to their highest levels ever. In government-controlled areas, the price of staple items can rise several times over the course of a single day, forcing many stores to close as they're unable to cope with the disorder.

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A television screen displays exchange rates outside a currency exchange bureau in Damascus, Syria, June 17, 2020. LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty

This week, Syria's currency, the pound, fell to a record low exchange rate of 3,500 pounds to the dollar on the black market. At the start of the year, you only needed 700 pounds to buy a dollar. U.S. dollars are virtually impossible to find at official currency exchange bureaus in Syria now. 

Some items, such as sugar, rice and medicines are becoming hard to find. But Ibrahim Hamad, a 32-year-old shopkeeper in Damascus, told CBS News that for him, finding products isn't the problem: "I cannot buy it anyway. My salary is now equivalent to $16" per month, he said, laughing with irony.

"When the local currency loses value, prices go up dramatically. Meat is not on the shopping list for most people, including myself, of course.  No doubt about that," Hamad said. "There are no vegetables at home either," he muttered as he walked home.

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Syrians buy bread in the town of Binnish in the country's northwestern Idlib province on June 9, 2020. OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty

A typical Syrian government employee's salary was equivalent to about $200 per month in March 2011, but with the devaluation of the pound, the same pay packet is now only worth about $15 to $20 per month. It's barely enough to cover groceries, and the collapse of the economy has been more severe over the last six months, with the pound weakening so sharply that salaries have become next to worthless.

Tightening the financial screws

Syria's allies Russia and Iran have succeeded in defending Assad from the U.S.-backed rebels that set out to topple his government almost a decade ago, but analysts say they can do little to help shore up his failing economy.

"Syria's allies will do their best to lend a hand to the Syrian government, but what they can offer is limited. The economic situation is very serious, and Moscow and Tehran have their own economic problems as well," one Syrian analyst, who asked not to be identified, told CBS News.

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The Caesar Act will likely make those countries, and others, less willing to help, including entities in the Persian Gulf and Europe that have maintained some economic links to Damascus. As of Wednesday, any institutions, companies or officials who finance the Syrian government in any way could be subject to travel bans, denied access to capital and even face possible arrest.

As the White House said Wednesday, the whole point is to increase pressure on Assad, but the Syrian government labelled the sanctions "economic terrorism," and said they would only increase the suffering of the Syrian people.

"The escalation of sanctions is against the Syrian people," the Syrian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "No one will be deceived by Trump and his administration's concern for the Syrians, because their goals are exposed, as are their policies that sow death, destruction and instability." 

Previous rounds of sanctions imposed by the U.S. have already hit hard. With their country's economy in tatters, many Syrians have kept their cash safe in bank accounts in neighboring Lebanon. But under pressure from Washington, Lebanon had already made it difficult or impossible for Syrians to access their money. The fear is this new round will tighten the screws even further.

Pressure mounts 

Anti-government protests — rare since Assad regained a firm upper hand in the war — broke out in the southern city of Sweida last Sunday, and have continued sporadically through the week. 

The protesters chanted demands for government reforms and better living conditions. 

While the crowds were modest, in the dozens, the demonstrations were unusual, especially as Sweida has remained loyal to Assad.

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Former Syrian government minister Imad Khamis is seen in front of a giant portrait of President Bashar Assad, in a May 11, 2013 file photo. STR/AFP/Getty

One week ago, Assad sacked his Prime Minister, Imad Khamis, who had held the position since 2016. No official explanation was provided, but observers interpreted the move as an attempt to diffuse growing anger over the economic crisis.

But the anger isn't aimed solely at Assad.

"The Syrian crisis will continue to escalate," Saad Hourani, a 25-year-old musician who plays at a Damascus restaurant, told CBS News. He said the only people hit by the new U.S. sanctions will be "the Syrian people at home, nobody else."

It's not clear, of course, whether the latest sanctions might ratchet up pressure on Assad enough to prompt a change in his government's behavior. If the past is any indication, it seems unlikely.

"Assad will not yield. That is a clear path for a regime that has proven its durability despite all unending challenges," predicted Faten Shallah, a 44-year-old math teacher at a secondary school in Damascus. "Assad didn't budge after losing three-quarters of Syria and suffering thousands of loyalist casualties. He is unlikely to be more flexible to secure investment money."

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