By Arab News
By Jamal Doumani
Last Tuesday night, while being interviewed by Charlie Rose on PBS, the secretary of the US Treasury Department, Jacob Lew, revealed to the world what deadly travails await an individual, a group or a nation that is “sanctioned” by the United States.
Back in 2014, at the outset of the US bombing campaign against Daesh, President Obama declared that the objective of that campaign was to “degrade and destroy Daesh.” And whereas Secretary of State John Kerry promised that the terrorist group would be “crushed” and Vice President Joe Biden blustered that the US “will pursue it to the gates of hell,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff pledged more modestly that it would be “contained.” And across the Atlantic, British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose nation is part of the coalition committed to the effort, was convinced that at the campaign’s conclusion “Daesh will be squeezed out of existence.” Well, different strokes for different folks.
Since that time, Daesh has indeed been degraded — though not yet destroyed — as evidenced by its recent, multiple defeats in Syria and Iraq. Indeed the White House last week sent a seven-page report to Congress, which outlined the next steps the US plans to adopt in its campaign, and emphasized how not only has the group not had any major military victories since May, but how warplanes have wreaked havoc on its source of revenue by bombing its oil fields, banks, communication and transportation systems and other infrastructure indispensable to sustaining the so-called caliphate’s existence.
Give credit, by all means, to the military dimension of the war on Daesh, But passing largely unnoticed is the contribution to that war by the US Treasury Department, a government agency not given by tradition to bombastic statements, or for that matter statements of any kind about its strategy, a strategy that it often pursues quietly, behind the scenes, if not even under the table.
The Treasury Department deals with one commodity: Money. That’s one thing it is qualified, perhaps over-qualified, at tracking down. And this is why Treasury has a beef with Daesh.
Daesh has a lot of money that enables it to finance its operations. Consider how deep Daesh’s pockets are: After the group captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, on June 10, 2014, it plundered its banks, including the Central Bank, whose vaults contained, according to the Economist, $425 million, took over an oil pipeline network with 3 million barrels, then went on to control the best agricultural land in the Levant, with the heavy industry that Saddam Hussein, in his heyday, had concentrated there.
In Syria it seized 160 oil fields, the bulk of the country’s oil, which it sold to sundry customers, including, ironically, the government in Damascus. Then it established a “caliphate” complete with a bureaucracy, an annual budget, a tax system and the rest of it. Experts estimated its GDP at the time at $8 billion. Daesh, effectively, became the wealthiest terrorist organization in history. And this is where Treasury came in.
To supplement the bombing surge on the group’s targets, the agency’s Office of Foreign Assets Control attacked Daesh’s finances by inhibiting its financial facilitators from using the international financial system.
Since a facilitator’s name is on a list, the so-called Designated Nationals List, sanctions can not only block that facilitator out of the financial system, but from crossing a border or getting on a train, effectively interrupting his connection to the outside world. Sanctions can be a weapon of war whose impact on a target has been known to be deadly.
Daesh is not the first entity that OFAC — which over the decades has used its muscle to enforce economic restrictions against a variety of terrorist groups and rogue regimes, even political organizations it did not favor — has tried to neuter with sanctions. Ask Cuba and North Korea, South Africa and Iraq, Iran and Russia. Indeed, ask Hamas, after the group won the 2006 parliamentary elections in Palestine (an upset even the CIA had not anticipated), which gave it the right to form a Cabinet, govern the territories and determine the political destiny of the Palestinian people.
Treasury made it so difficult for the group to function that it was denied access to donor funds, on which the Palestinian National Authority depended for much of its public sector budget. By July the next year, after the Hamas-Fatah clashes concluded in Gaza, the group had become contained, isolated and pauperized, all without a shot being fired by any of the suits at the US Treasury Department, at 1500 Pennsylvania Avenue. If I were Baghdadi, I would be tossing and turning in my sleep these days.