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2023-02-07t093509z_1380197448_rc256z9rphv4_rtrmadp_3_turkey-quake-syria-scaled

Lifting sanctions on Syria after devastating earthquake

Washington is averse to anything that appears as normalization with the Assad regime, but is there room in this case for exceptions?

Analysis | Middle East

A devastating 7.8 earthquake struck southern Turkey and northern Syria, and more than 29,000 people have already been confirmed killed (as of Feb. 13 update) in one of the biggest natural disasters in the region in decades. 




There has been an outpouring of international assistance to Turkey in the wake of the devastation. The U.S. and dozens of other states have been quick to offer help, including the deployment of teams to assist in rescuing survivors still trapped in the rubble of collapsed buildings. Millions of refugees from the Syrian war in Turkey are among those affected by the destruction and displacement caused by the earthquake.




Unfortunately, reports are already indicating that relief efforts in Syria are being severely hampered thanks to the policies of the Syrian government, the political divisions created by the war, and broad U.S. sanctions. The Syrian government requires all humanitarian aid intended for the areas they control to go through them, which inevitably slows down the delivery of aid. The Assad regime should open all border crossings it controls and give up on its official grip on the distribution of aid, but the U.S. is in a poor position to influence their government to make these changes. 




However, the U.S. can make important and constructive changes to its own policies.




Even before the earthquake, U.S. Syria sanctions were impeding reconstruction efforts and inflicting additional pain on the civilian population. As columnist Anchal Vohra pointed out more than a year ago, “Western sanctions that banned reconstruction of any sort, including of power plants and pulverized cities, certainly exacerbated Syrians’ miseries and eliminated any chance of recovery.” 




Now these same sanctions are a serious obstacle to providing Syrians with disaster relief and helping them to rebuild. The U.S. should move quickly to suspend or lift as many of its broad sanctions as it can so that aid agencies and other governments in the region will be able to operate more effectively in addressing the plight of the Syrian people.




The Biden administration has so far shown no inclination to ease sanctions or reach out to the Syrian government to coordinate humanitarian assistance for people in government-controlled areas. When asked by Palestinian journalist Said Arikat why the U.S. wasn’t contacting the Syrian government or considering lifting sanctions “that have basically suffocated Syria,” State Department spokesman Ned Price brushed off the suggestions and said that “it would be quite ironic, if not even counterproductive, for us to reach out to a government that has brutalized its people.”




This position promises more collective punishment of the Syrian people for the crimes of their government by citing the government’s crimes as the reason not to reduce the unjust punishment. It illustrates the absurdity of our current Syria policy as well as anything could.




The Biden administration’s position isn’t surprising, but it is regrettable. As abusive as the Syrian government is, that is not an excuse to deny ordinary people disaster relief when it is in our government’s power to clear the way for it. While U.S. sanctions are not responsible for all the misery that the Syrian people experience, they do exacerbate already poor conditions and make life considerably harder for the civilian population. As Riad Sargi, executive director of the Catholic charity Caritas Syria, said in an interview last year, “In the end, the [victim] of the sanctions is not the richest people, but the poorest people, the children. They survive under abnormal conditions, without education, without medications, without anything, and without food sometimes.”




To their credit, the administration has taken small steps to address the humanitarian harm that U.S. sanctions cause, but the new regulations announced by the Treasury Department at the end of last year do not go nearly far enough. As Ali Ahmadi has explained, “They are largely focused on extending exemptions to NGOs and multinational institutions of credit and standardizing ineffective existing exemptions around humanitarian trade across different sanctions programs. This does not sufficiently address the many problems with these exemptions.” 




The changes are welcome, but they are minor enough that they do not fix the chief flaw of broad sanctions, namely that they indiscriminately harm the entire population in response to the actions of a relative few. Syria sanctions are often justified as a means of ensuring accountability for the wrongdoing of the Syrian government and its allies, but what kind of accountability is it that mostly harms the innocent and leaves the perpetrators relatively unscathed?




“Pointless” is one of the most common descriptions that critics have used for the Caesar Act sanctions that started to be implemented in 2020. While broad sanctions and the threat of secondary sanctions on anyone that does business with entire sectors of the Syrian economy have done tremendous damage in the last few years, they have done nothing to advance U.S. interests. Like every other version of “maximum pressure” economic war, Syria sanctions hurt millions of people but have little effect on those in power or their behavior.




 As analyst Sam Heller warned several years ago, “these sanctions have a human cost that is real, now.” That cost is often ignored or denied in Washington, but when a disaster like this earthquake happens it forces us to remember the pitiless economic war that our government was already waging on the population there. 




Journalist Matthew Petti has noted the differences between the current response to disaster in Syria and comparable earthquake emergencies in previous decades: “There was once a time when earthquake relief transcended — and even helped mend — political divisions. From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, political adversaries extended a hand to each other several times during severe natural disasters.” 




Washington is reluctant to do anything that might hint at normalization of relations with the Syrian government after more than a decade of hostility, but it should be willing to make an exception for extraordinary circumstances when the humanitarian needs of the population are so dire. As distasteful as engaging with the Syrian government may be, it is worse to continue strangling innocent people with sanctions in order to spite that government.




Significant sanctions relief by itself is no panacea, and it will not alleviate all the suffering of the Syrian people, but it will remove one major obstacle to relief, recovery, and reconstruction in the months and years to come. The humanitarian case for such relief is overwhelming. Putting it into practice will require the administration to recognize the bankruptcy of sweeping sanctions.   


People walk past rubble of damaged buildings, in the aftermath of the earthquake, in Aleppo, Syria February 7, 2023. REUTERS/Firas Makdesi TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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