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Sanctions in Syria should not be lifted, but do need to change

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

Rubbles after the earthquake. Daraa, Syria. Photo by Mahmoud Sulaiman on Unsplash
Rubbles after the earthquake. Daraa, Syria. Photo by Mahmoud Sulaiman on Unsplash

The recent earthquake in Turkey and Syria has devastated the lives of two countries' citizens that already suffer to varying degrees from economic and social hardships. The earthquake has already killed over 40,000 people and left millions more displaced. While Turkey has received aid from several countries, Syria has been left in the dust, wondering when serious aid missions will reach the war-destroyed country. This earthquake has reignited debates over sanctions imposed on Syria and whether sanctions are preventing aid from reaching the people most in need. Even though, in theory, international law protects humanitarian aid from sanctions, the sanctions placed on Syria have impacted the ability of humanitarian organisations to access and provide for those in need in Syria. Additionally, the sanctions will hamper rebuilding projects in several destroyed cities following initial search and rescue missions. Furthermore, sanctions have not proved to have stopped the violence as human rights violations persist. The crisis in Syria is distinctly complex; sanctions are not the only barrier to humanitarian aid in Syria, but they are an added hurdle on top of existing issues contributing to the slow delivery of aid. Understanding what the sanctions on Syria are and how they contribute to the worsening humanitarian crisis for the Syrian population following the earthquake, is necessary.

When did Sanctions in Syria start, and Why?

Sanctions are an economic tool used for two reasons: to encourage meaningful behaviour change and to address injustices in the country where they are imposed. Sanctions against Syria began in 2011, during the onset of the Arab Spring, to limit the government's use of force against its people. U.S. sanctions are divided into five groups to target: the Syrian government, exposed individuals, the repressive apparatus of the regime, specific sectors, and trade logistics (Alawani and Shaar). Secondary sanctions, called the Caesar Act, were imposed in 2019 under President Donald Trump. The Caesar act allows the United States (US) to penalize individuals who engage in activities prohibited by the primary sanctions in Syria. By the end of 2021, the US had imposed 178 sanctions, while the European Union (EU) had set 280 due to its inability to use force in the country. However, despite 12 years of sanctions, little has changed regarding aggressive behaviour towards Syrian citizens. The suffering of innocent Syrian Citizens worsens each year because of how the US and EU carry out sanctions.

Highlighting issues of current sanctions.

Current sanctions on Syria contain many errors and have not adequately encouraged meaningful behaviour change or created a better life for Syrian civilians. The EU imposed sanctions quickly because of previously strong ties to trade in Syria, while the US imposed sanctions more gradually. The primary shortcomings of the sanctions come from the fact that they are deeply rooted in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime. Sanctioning individuals closest to Assad has only strengthened their ties with the Syrian President instead of encouraging meaningful behaviour change within the regime. An example of this is Wasim Qattan, who said he was "honoured" that his name was included on the list of sanctioned individuals (Alawani and Shaar). Another shortcoming consists of the lack of rewards for whistleblowers. "Syria suffers from a severe lack of freedom of expression, and when brave citizens are offered no incentive to come forwards, especially as some risk their lives when they reveal what is happening in-country or leak classified information, the sanction program ignores a crucial potential contribution that could massively improve their effectiveness" (Alawani and Shaar). After all, the point of sanctions is meaningful behaviour change. How can we know what the exact behaviour is without insider information? Creating a system to identify the main issues within the regime by encouraging whistleblowers would lead to more effective sanctions.

Other issues with current sanctions involve tracking and monitoring logistics. The way sanctions are listed, who is sanctioned, and the reasoning behind some sanctioned individuals have been confused. It is still undetermined how some individuals ended up on the list. Consequently, some explanations as to why specific individuals are sanctioned may not be true. For example, Karam al-Assad is so insignificant that it is unknown how he made it on the list (Alawani and Shaar). One reason might be to block future heirs from accessing funds, but this point would be counterproductive. Future heirs have nothing to do with current issues, and such sanctions might cause problems related to geopolitics in the future. There are also several explanations for sanctions that do not make sense. For example, Vice President Farouk al-Sara'a was sanctioned for "his involvement against the civilian population" even though he publicly denounced violence against citizens and was banned from public appearances for his comments (Alawani and Shaar). It is only possible to track and record progress when the reasoning is correct or explains the initial problem clearly. Finally, there are several instances of unknown names, misspelt names, non-existent family connections, birthdays that do not match, and redundancy within sanctions. Without proper monitoring and tracking, sanctions might never end, which is unfair to the citizens and an unfair standard to hold the regime to.

Sanction impacts

Sanctions have had far worse impacts on citizens than any of the people listed. In fact, "… especially in authoritarian regimes, sanctions lead to suffering and economic hardships for citizens far more often than to any political change" (Alawani and Shaar). This is evident in the fact that despite intense sanctions, the regime continued its war against its citizens for seven years past 2011, and human rights violations still occur today. Thus far, sanctions have negatively impacted: Syrian NGOs, Syrians living abroad, and national economies and have blocked rehabilitative services in areas not controlled by the government (Alawani and Shaar). The recent earthquake has proven that current sanctions are causing a barrier to aid delivery. Sanctions have exacerbated the natural disaster through the slow delivery of medical aid and food aid because of fuel sanctions. "Damage to roads and other infrastructure in southern Turkey has stalled aid from reaching northern Syria, and area already devastated by 12 years of conflict" (Sewell and Chehayed). The north of Syria, an area severely affected by the earthquake, is controlled by Turkey and the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham rebel group, which has ties to Al-Qaeda. Prior to the earthquake, aid was brought to non-government-controlled areas of Syria through southern Turkey through the Bad al-Hawa crossing. However, the road to the crossing point and the Hatay airport was severely damaged. Assad has recently approved two border crossings allowing UN aid to flow for three months (Perry et al.) Khaled Hboubati, head of the Syrian Red Cross, said his team is ready to offer aid to all parts of Syria. He also called on the US and EU to lift sanctions as they are exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. Even if the roads through Turkey were not damaged, "There is no fuel to even send (aid and rescue) convoys, and this is because of the blockade and sanctions" (qtd in. Sewell and Chehayed). To make matters worse, even if the US decided on a better way to send aid, US and EU sanctions prevent rebuilding damaged infrastructure, affecting the post-earthquake recovery period.

Thus far, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have sent the most aid. Assad has also entered talks with Turkey and Egypt regarding aid and re-opening border crossings for aid to reach affected areas. The US has responded by lifting sanctions that would have previously blocked aid from entering Syria for 180 days (Perry et al). Rebuilding damaged infrastructure could take years, not just the 180-day window that the country has been given. The US and EU must work with Assad to find solutions to a disaster which is separated from political blame.

Arguments for lifting sanctions

Before the earthquake, there were several arguments for ending sanctions for the sake of the Syrian people. "The international community cannot wash its hands of the Syria problem by simply imposing sanctions" (Vohra). Punishing people for the crimes of a leader they do not even support is unfair. Arguments against sanctions include the lack of electricity, fuel, and basic necessities; over 90 per cent of the population lives in poverty and seven million Syrians have been displaced. Sanctioned individuals face difficulty but have taken avenues to reduce the effects of sanctions. "In Syria, individuals and entities with greater access to resources and power are more able to endure the sanctions, while small- and medium-sized enterprises, especially those not involved with the regime, are more likely to fail as access to resources becomes exclusive" (Alawani and Shaar). An appropriate response would be to take the Syrian conflict more seriously and not just impose sanction after sanction to make it look like the US and EU are doing something. After years of war and the allyship it boasts, it is clear that the Assad regime is not going anywhere anytime soon. The people can no longer afford the costs of such ineffective sanctions. "The International Crisis Group (ICG) has long recommended that the US list "concrete and realistic" steps that Damascus and its allies must take in exchange for sanction waivers" (Vohra). While sanctions should not go away entirely because of the lack of meaningful behaviour change, they should be limited, cleaned up, and come from a rational perspective. Now more than ever, Syrian civilians need international support, not just in the form of aid but in the form of political change from both their government and the international community.

About the Writer

Leah Tyler is a recent graduate from the University of Colorado Boulder. She graduated with a Major in International Affairs, a minor in Political Science and a certificate in Peace, Conflict, and Security Studies. She spent part of her time studying sustainable development as well as politics and religious and ethnics divides across the Middle East and Africa.

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