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syria economic sanctions

Written by Aleena Imran 7:50 pm Articles, Current Affairs, International Relations, Published Content

How Western Sanctions Are Worsening the Humanitarian Crisis in Syria

Labeled a ‘state sponsor of terrorism’ in 1979, Syria has been experiencing severe economic sanctions by the West since then. The sanctions are renewed every year, and all US Presidents have been renewing them (& adding to them) without fail. The problem is that over half of the 21 million Syrians that lived in the country before the war have been displaced. Western Sanctions and Bashar’s obstinacy mean that Syrians are continually getting crushed by inflation, broken infrastructure, & the lack of access to basic humanities. The question is, when will the suffering of the Syrian people end?
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About the Author(s)
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Aleena Imran has an MBA from NUST and has worked as an HR professional at companies like MPCL, Coke, Jazz, and LMKT. In her spare time, she runs her home-based baking business. Apart from being an avid reader, she enjoys writing, photography, and art.

A Long History of Economic Sanctions

There are some countries that just seem doomed from the get-go and Syria is seemingly one of those countries. From a family of iron-fisted dictators, a never-ending civil war, an economic crisis in neighboring Lebanon, and the devastating earthquake which has killed thousands and displaced millions, it really does seem like Syria can’t catch a break. But can Syria, a country, that has been crippled by economic sanctions since the 1970s, even dream of better days?

Hafez-al-Assad, and later, his son Bashar-al-Assad, both ruled Syria with an iron fist. They built their network of loyalists and spies, which enabled them to gain power, and then keep it for as long as they could. Their reputation, fanned by the West, is so formidable that some have even compared the Assad family to the fictional Corleone family from ‘The Godfather’.

However, the fact remains that the US decides which dictator/state is ‘evil’ and which gets away with murder. For instance, Syria was labeled a ‘state sponsor of terrorism’ in 1979, alongside Iraq, Libya, and former South Yemen, for allegedly supporting terrorist groups. On the other hand, even during the peak of the Cold War, the US did not label the Soviet Union as they did with Syria, even though the Soviets were reportedly supporting a wide range of terrorist groups at the time. 

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It is interesting that while Biden all but labeled Putin a killer and has constantly accused Russia of terrorist acts against the Ukrainians, Russia has not yet joined the current list of the state sponsors of terrorism alongside Iran, Cuba, North Korea, and the original member i.e. Syria. There are many other countries that are constantly involved in human rights violations, supporting insurgencies, rebels, and even funding ‘terrorists’, but somehow, they don’t make the cut either.

Discussing the state sponsors of terrorism list, Professor Michael Oppenheimer aptly stated, “Countries that wind up on that list are countries we don’t like. Other countries and outside powers support terrorism, and objectively speaking are terrorists, and the ones we don’t like are on the list, and the ones we’re allied with are not on the list. It’s all about double standards.”

Coming back to Syria’s history of sanctions, Bashar succeeded his father in 2000, and in 2004, a new round of sanctions was imposed on the country by George W. Bush. These new sanctions were part of his strategy to combat the ‘Axis of Evil’ (initially Iran, Iraq, and North Korea). The same strategy ‘condemned the possession of weapons of mass destruction by the Syrian regime, Syria’s grip on Lebanon, the willingness to destabilize Iraq, and the support for terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas’.

Obama decided to renew the economic sanctions (which, incidentally, have to be renewed every year) in 2009, accusing Syria of continuing to support terrorism and adding to its arsenal of WMDs, working on missile programs, and even undermining American (and international) efforts to stabilize Iraq.

Fast forward to the Arab Spring, thousands of Syrians took to the streets to demand social and political reform. The somewhat peaceful uprising blew up into a full fledge civil war when the government started shooting civilians to end the protests. The protests started in March 2011, and as of May 2011, according to human rights experts, over 850 people had been killed, and thousands had been arrested

The civil war led to even more sanctions by Obama in 2011, as well as the imposition of sanctions by the EU, Australia, Switzerland, the UK (post-Brexit), and even the Arab League. The 2011 sanctions targeted the country’s oil sector, assets of Syrian individuals and entities, the prohibition of petroleum imports and investments, and the prohibition of the sale of equipment, technology, and of services to Syria.

A UNSC draft resolution was put up in March 2017 to establish even more economic sanctions against Syria, but Russia and China vetoed it. In 2019, US President Donald Trump signed into law the so-called Caesar Act, under which Congress authorized severe economic sanctions against Syria. These sanctions, which came into force in June 2020, meant that anyone doing business with the Syrian authorities was potentially exposed to travel restrictions and financial sanctions.

They also target the provision of goods, services, technology, and/or information that would expand local production in the petroleum industry. The bigger problem is that the sanctions also become a deterrent for any foreign investment to come in for reconstruction and rehabilitation after the war is over.

But What of the Syrians?

As of March 2022, the civil war in Syria has led to the deaths of over 400,000 Syrians and to the widespread displacement of the Syrian people. Over half of the 21 million Syrians (that lived in the country pre-war) have been displaced. 6.7 million have been displaced internally, while 6.6. million have become refugees in countries like Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon.

After a twelve-day visit to Syria, Alena Douhan (an UN-appointed human rights expert) urged the world to lift the unilateral economic sanctions against the country, stating that they are deepening the crisis and resulting in even more destruction and trauma. She discussed how 90% of Syria’s population was living below the poverty line, and most are deprived of basic amenities and services such as food, water, electricity, shelter, cooking and heating fuel, transport options, and healthcare.

She also pointed out that half the infrastructure in the country was either completely or partially destroyed, and that the ever-increasing sanctions were quashing any hopes of economic recovery and reconstruction. Douhan also indicated that the problem lies with the ‘over-compliance’ of the rules set down by the West. She quoted something heartbreaking that she heard many Syrians say i.e. “I saw much suffering, but now I see the hope die”.

Hope truly has died for many. This is evidenced by the fact that over 82,000 Syrians applied for asylum in the EU in 2021, and nearly 64% of Syrians inside government-held territory want to leave the country. Since Europe is already home to a million Syrians, it is safe to assume that it does not have the appetite for more.

It is heartbreaking to see how the US is constantly turning a blind eye to all the human suffering that the sanctions are causing. The country is in shambles and has no hope to rebuild, thanks to the sanctions that are resulting in nearly 12 million Syrians grappling with food insecurity.

The Ineffectiveness of the Sanctions

Despite the wide variety of sanctions, the Syrian government has not offered any concessions, has not indicated that it wants a peaceful settlement, and does not seem to care about its human rights violations. Since there is a lack of resources that can make the sanctions effective, the sanctions are – simply put – ineffective.

Powerful and influential people that are in the government, or have strong ties to it, are getting away with everything by making use of black money, shell companies, and the many, many other resources that they have at their disposal to evade the restrictions. This means that ordinary civilians and small and medium businesses are bearing the brunt of the financial restrictions that come with the sanctions.

According to research, sanctions have targeted the ‘tip of the iceberg’ instead of the iceberg itself. This is evidenced by their recommendations for policy changes which revolve around scraping country and sector-based sanctions (especially on financial transactions), expediting legal steps taken against Assad’s allies (and loyalists in the government), and targeting the deep networks of the regime by incentivizing whistleblowers, and by involving local organizations to aid in collecting evidence and minimizing mistakes.

According to Sam Heller, “U.S. sanctions on Syria will not ‘stop the atrocities’… these sanctions have a human cost that is real, now”. He also discusses how ‘trying’ (i.e. doing something) without any real prospects is irresponsible and wrong. He goes on to say that “Washington’s sanctions illustrate much of what is wrong with interventionist U.S. foreign policy generally. In Syria, the United States is using coercive means — unilateral economic sanctions — to mismatched, implausible ends”.

The Deadly Earthquakes & the Temporary Relief

The two devastating earthquakes in Turkiye and Syria on February 6th measuring 7.8 and 7.7 (that have now resulted in over 37,000 deaths) have brought even more suffering to the Syrian people. With over 5,800 dead and over 5.3 million displaced in Syria alone (as of February 14th), the consequences of the quakes led to immense international pressure for the sanctions to be lifted.

Russia, Iran, UAE, Algeria, and Iraq immediately sent some support to the government-held areas in Syria, but Western leaders were refusing to do so mainly due to the sanctions – and allegedly due to fears of their aid being misused by the Assad regime. According to the US, their local partners i.e., the local NGOs were working to get aid to the people in need.

Who Is Sending Rescue Teams to Turkey and Syria?
Who Is Sending Rescue Teams to Turkey and Syria?” by Statista is licensed under CC BY-ND 4.0.

However, these NGOs lack the resources and the infrastructure to deal with the destruction on such a massive scale – even with America’s support. Due to the sanctions, organizations were finding it extremely difficult to figure out the logistics of providing aid. Even the UN was widely criticized for its inefficiency in delivering aid to Syria since it took them three whole days to send the first delivery of six trucks of aid supplies.

Referring to the support needed by Syria in the wake of the disaster, the director of Syria’s Red Crescent, Khaled Hboubati, urged the concerned parties to remove the sanctions “to deal with the effects of the devastating earthquake.” There was also an immediate movement on social media in the wake of the earthquake, with many civil rights groups urging for the sanctions to be removed so that aid may reach the thousands that need it.

The need on-ground and the international pressure led to the US issuing a six-month sanction exemption on all transactions providing disaster relief four days after the earthquakes hit – which means transferring aid will be a bit simpler. However, this will probably do little to placate the private entities/organizations that avoid working with Syria for fear of being blacklisted or punished for breaking sanction rules.

Moreover, the delay in the announcement, and in the provision of relief efforts and aid supplies meant that the window to finding survivors had already almost closed. The UN went as far as to acknowledge an international failure to help Syria’s earthquake victims.

What Now?

The question is that given the series of disasters that have hit the country one after the other – and the devastating earthquake that just shook Syria, will the Western world finally take pity on the plight of the Syrians? Or will it continue to turn a blind eye to the human suffering that the sanctions are causing on a daily basis (even more so now) in even more failed attempts to bring Bashar to his knees? If it is – God forbid – the latter, then what will become of the Syrians?


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The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.

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