Some countries just seem to be doomed from the start, and Syria looks like one of them. With a family of dictators at the helm, an ongoing civil war, an economic crisis and now the devastating earthquake which has killed thousands and displaced more than million people, it really does seem as if Syria can’t get a break. But can a country that has been crippled by sanctions since the 1970s even dream of better days?
Hafez Al-Assad and his son Bashar have both ruled Syria with an iron fist; Assad Junior still does. They built up a network of loyalists and spies which enabled them to gain and then stay in power. Their reputation, fanned by the West, is so formidable that some have even compared the Assad family to the fictional Corleone family in The Godfather.
The US decides which dictator or state is “evil” and which gets away with murder. For instance, Syria was labelled a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” in 1979, alongside Iraq, Libya and former South Yemen. However, even at the peak of the Cold War, the US did not label the Soviet Union in the same way, even though the Soviets were reportedly supporting a number of terrorist groups at the time.
Such reticence is ongoing. While US President Joe Biden has all but labelled Russian President Vladimir Putin as a killer and has constantly accused Russia of terrorism against the Ukrainians, Russia has not yet joined the list of the State Sponsors of Terrorism alongside Iran, Cuba, North Korea and an original member, 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 list either.
“Countries that wind up on that list are countries we don’t like,” explained Professor Michael Oppenheimer. “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.”
Bashar Al-Assad succeeded his father in 2000, and in 2004 a new round of sanctions was imposed on Syria by George W Bush. These were part of his strategy to combat the “Axis of Evil”: 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 destabilise Iraq, and the support for terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas.”
Barack Obama renewed the sanctions in 2009, and they have been renewed every year since. The then US president accused Syria of continuing to support terrorism and adding to its arsenal of WMDs, working on missile programmes, and even undermining American (and international) efforts to stabilise Iraq.
During the Arab Spring, thousands of Syrians took to the streets to demand social and political reform. The peaceful demonstrations started in March 2011 and developed into a fully-fledged civil war when the government responded with live fire to disperse protesters. By May 2011, more than 850 people had been killed, with thousands arrested.
The civil war led to even more sanctions being imposed by Obama in 2011, followed over the years by the EU, Australia, Switzerland, post-Brexit Britain 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 services to Syria.
A UN Security Council draft resolution was drafted in March 2017 to establish even more 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 authorised severe economic sanctions against Syria. They came into force in June 2020 and mean that anyone doing business with the Syrian authorities is 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.
As of March 2022, the civil war in Syria had led to the death of over 400,000 Syrians and the widespread displacement of millions more. Over half of the 21 million Syrians who lived in the country pre-war have been displaced; 6.7m have been displaced internally, and 6.6m are refugees in Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and further afield.
After a twelve-day visit to Syria, UN-appointed human rights expert Alena Douhan urged the world to lift the unilateral sanctions against the country. She said that they are deepening the crisis and resulting in even more destruction and trauma.
Douhan discussed the fact that 90 per cent of Syria’s population live 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 are quashing any hopes of economic recovery and reconstruction.
The UN official also indicated that the problem lies with “over-compliance” of the rules set down by the West. She quoted something heartbreaking that she heard many Syrians say: “I saw much suffering, but now I see the hope die.”
And the hope has indeed died for many. This is evidenced by the fact that over 82,000 Syrians applied for asylum in the EU in 2021. Moreover, nearly 64 per cent of Syrians inside regime-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. Syria is a shambles and has no hope to rebuild, thanks to the sanctions which have resulted in nearly 12m Syrians grappling with food insecurity.
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, they are – to put it simply – ineffective. Powerful and influential people in the government or with strong ties to it are getting away with everything by making use of black market money, shell companies and the 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 the recommendations for policy changes which revolve around scrapping 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 incentivising whistleblowers, and by involving local organisations to support the collection of evidence and minimisation of mistakes.
“US sanctions on Syria will not ‘stop the atrocities’… these sanctions have a human cost that is real, now,” wrote Sam Heller recently. Trying to do something without any real prospects is irresponsible and wrong, he added. “Washington’s sanctions illustrate much of what is wrong with interventionist US foreign policy generally. In Syria, the United States is using coercive means — unilateral economic sanctions — to mismatched, implausible ends.”
The two devastating earthquakes in Turkiye and Syria on 6 February killed 40,000 people, and counting. The devastation has brought even more suffering to the Syrian people. With over 5,800 dead and over 5.3 million displaced as a result of the quake in Syria alone as of last week, the magnitude of the disaster has led to immense international pressure for the sanctions on the country to be lifted.
Russia, Iran, UAE, Algeria and Iraq immediately sent some support to the government-held areas in Syria, but Western leaders refused to do so mainly due to the sanctions, and fears that their aid will be misused by the Assad regime. According to the US, its local partners — local NGOs — were working to get aid to the people in need. However, these NGOs lack the resources and the infrastructure to deal with such massive destruction, even with US support.
Because of the sanctions, organisations found it extremely difficult to figure out the logistics of providing aid. Even the UN was criticised widely for its inefficiency; it took three whole days to send the first 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 relevant parties to remove the sanctions “to deal with the effects of the devastating earthquake.” Many civil rights groups used social media to urge the lifting of sanctions so that aid could get to those who need it the most.
Washington responded by issuing a six-month sanction exemption four days after the earthquakes hit, on all transactions providing disaster relief, which should mean that transferring aid will be a bit simpler. However, this will probably do little to help the charitable entities and organisations that avoid working with Syria for fear of being blacklisted or punished for breaking sanction rules. The delay in announcing this exemption meant that the window for finding survivors was almost closed. The UN went as far as to acknowledge an international failure to help Syria’s earthquake victims.
Given the series of disasters that have hit the country one after the other, and now the devastating earthquake, will Western governments finally take pity on the people of Syria and consider their plight? Or will they continue to turn a blind eye to the human suffering that the sanctions are causing on a daily basis as more attempts to bring Bashar Al-Assad to his knees fail? If the West opts for the latter approach, as it has been doing, then what will become of the Syrians in their beleaguered land? Its long history of sanctions hurts them much more than the regime.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.