In the past decade, the people of Syria have suffered the unparalleled hardships of war and mass displacement. Earlier this month, Syrians were struck by another calamity as a historic earthquake destroyed entire towns in Turkey and Syria and buried tens of thousands of people under rubble.
The desperate need for humanitarian aid has reignited a debate over U.S. sanctions against Syria and whether the U.S. government should lift them to accelerate rescue and relief efforts. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is using the earthquake to renew calls to lift sanctions — a call that has been echoed by some progressive and Arab American groups and activists in the United States.
The issue is a contentious one, with critics of the Assad regime arguing that sanctions protect Syrians from further harm by denying the government resources to rearm and launch a military campaign against the millions of people who live in opposition-held areas most affected by the quake.
“The regime has inflicted thousands of times more damage on the country than the recent earthquake. The voices coming now to call for lifting sanctions on the government are either being cynical or simply do not know what is going on in Syria,” said Wa’el Alzayat, the CEO of Emgage, a Muslim American advocacy organization, and a former Middle East policy expert at the U.S. State Department.
In 2019, the U.S. passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which imposed harsh sanctions on the Syrian economy following revelations of torture and mass executions in government prisons from a Syrian military defector code-named Caesar who provided thousands of pictures of murdered detainees to foreign investigators. The sanctions have effectively cut Syria off from the global economy, leaving it dependent on a handful of allied states like Russia and Iran.
“The main factor hindering humanitarian aid is not sanctions. It’s the fact that Bashar al-Assad is quite simply a thief.”
Last week, the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control authorized a 180-day exemption to sanctions so that humanitarian aid organizations can do earthquake recovery work in Syria without fear of legal repercussions. The Syrian government recently opened two border crossings to allow aid to flow into rebel-held areas from its own territory, though some local militant groups have said that they will refuse any aid that comes via Damascus, the capital.
Despite sanctions, the Syrian government has benefited from United Nations aid programs that have provided vital resources to people in government-held areas, while at the same time helping prop up corrupt and abusive companies tied to the regime.
“Sanctions do effect the humanitarian response, but the impact is hugely exaggerated and mostly offset by the fact that the vast majority of aid arriving to Syria — most of which goes to regime-held Syria — comes from the same countries imposing those sanctions,” said Karam Shaar, a political economist focused on Syria and a nonresident fellow at the Middle East Institute. “The Syrian regime siphons off aid and sells it on the black market to enrich its own cronies.”
“The main factor hindering humanitarian aid is not sanctions,” he continued. “It’s the fact that Bashar al-Assad is quite simply a thief.”
Even before the devastating earthquake, Syria had been gripped by an economic crisis that began with the onset of the 2011 civil war. In government-controlled territories, including in Damascus, ordinary people can count on just a few hours of electricity a day, with necessities like gas and heating fuel mostly out of reach. The war has left Syria’s infrastructure in ruins, with little prospect of reconstruction on the horizon. Meanwhile, its currency has effectively collapsed, triggering hyperinflation that has pushed an estimated 90 percent of the population under the poverty line. The situation is even worse for the millions of Syrians who live in rebel-held areas or who have been displaced to refugee camps in Turkey and Lebanon, where they live on the razor’s edge of survival.
The war has resulted in a de facto partition of the country into different zones dependent on meager international aid for survival, while the rest of the world has largely abandoned Syria to focus on other conflicts.
“In the initial years of the war, when human rights agencies sought to provide aid to Syria, the biggest challenge they often faced was the regime itself, which wanted to control who and where they could reach. This led to a division in the aid-based response to the crisis within the country,” said Rana B. Khoury, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign whose research focuses on international aid and civilian activism during the Syrian conflict.
Sanctions on the Syrian economy, frequently criticized by U.N. experts, have dissuaded international companies from doing business in the country, even while government-connected firms have continued to profit from contracts with foreign relief agencies and friendly governments. While the sanctions do contain humanitarian exemptions, their broad nature has often led to over-compliance by risk-averse foreign banks. Out of fear, they often refuse to process any transactions dealing with Syria — even if it means denying basic necessities to civilians.
“After the earthquake, aid took several days to make its way to northwestern Syria, which is under opposition control, enflaming a desperate situation for a population that is largely internally displaced people who have lost everything once before. At the same time, you have this parallel universe in government-held territory where people are also in desperate need,” Khoury said. “This situation is not entirely due to the sanctions, but it has absolutely been exacerbated by them.”
The economic turmoil in Syria has fed hopes in some quarters that the government will simply collapse under the pressure. A recent article in Foreign Policy noted that wages and basic services have collapsed in government-held areas to the point where “many people are now burning pistachio peels, rubber, and even feces for warmth at home.” But a regime that has already shown that it is willing to kill in huge numbers to maintain political control is unlikely to face an existential threat anytime soon from its people, who have now been exhausted by a decade of war and extreme poverty.
The lull in violence exists in part because of the impact of sanctions and foreign interventions that have frozen the battle lines between the regime and its opposition.
While Syria is not exactly peaceful and there has been no political reconciliation to end the war, a lull in violence has now held for a few years between the Syrian government and opposition groups. This calm exists in part because of the impact of sanctions and foreign interventions that have frozen the battle lines between the regime and its opposition.
If sanctions were lifted, the Assad regime could be expected to rearm and try to reconquer territory now held by Kurdish and Sunni Arab groups. Millions of people live in these effectively autonomous regions, and a resurgence of the war there could risk triggering a new wave of the refugee crisis that began in 2015.
“The purpose of these sanctions is not regime change,” said Alzayat of Emgage. “The purpose is to limit the ability of the government to harm people in opposition-held areas by denying it the hard currency it needs to buy MiG fighter jets, tanks, and to rearm its militias.”
The Assad regime has been unwilling to negotiate any reduction of its power since the start of the war — an obstinate position that effectively doomed Syria to its present tragedy. In the eyes of their advocates, the sanctions remain one of the last tools available to compel the regime to agree to a lasting peace treaty with what remains of the opposition.
“There could be efforts devoted to a formal national ceasefire that results in power-sharing and an end to the conflict,” Alzayat said. “If the regime agrees, lifting sanctions could be used as an economic and political incentive.”
While the United States has remained hostile to the Syrian regime, many countries in the Middle East that were previously committed to overthrowing Assad have begun to embrace him once more, including close U.S. partners like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Their stance is based on cold pragmatism. As much as the Assad government deserves to be cast into the dustbin of history for its crimes, many of his neighbors have concluded that it is unlikely that Assad will be ousted anytime soon or relinquish control over the millions of people who live under his rule. That reality has raised a quandary for opponents of the regime who seek justice for Syria but want to minimize the collateral damage caused by sanctions to ordinary Syrians.
Advocates say that any easing of economic sanctions should be paired with political talks that put an end to the Syrian conflict for good.
“It puts us as Syrians opposed to the Syrian regime into both a political and ethical dilemma,” said Shaar, the political economist. “If we know that Western countries are not genuinely invested in a political solution in Syria, should we continue to support sanctions? I am not sure that we should — or at least not sanctions with the current setup.”
Shaar recently co-authored a blog post for the Atlantic Council, in which he argued that U.S. sanctions should target front companies and other financial vehicles that the regime uses to generate funds, while removing broad sectoral restrictions against the Syrian economy that have exacerbated the suffering of ordinary Syrians.
Above all, advocates say that any easing of economic sanctions should be paired with political talks that put an end to the Syrian conflict for good, instead of merely providing cash to fuel a return to war.
“We can agree that sanctions impact the Syrian people; no one can say that they don’t. But the Syrian people are also hostages to this regime. If the sanctions are lifted today, the war will simply heat up again,” Alzayat said. “Absent a political solution for the seven million Arabs and Kurds living in the north of the country, it will only empower Assad and hurt Syrians.”