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.
Daniel Larison is a regular columnist at Responsible Statecraft, contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and a former senior editor at The American Conservative magazine. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago. He writes regularly for his newsletter, Eunomia, on Substack.
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
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.