Our Cruel Collective Punishment of the Syrian People
Joshua Landis and Steven Simon detail the cruel and destructive effects of U.S. sanctions on the people of Syria:
The Trump administration designed the sanctions it has now imposed on Syria to make reconstruction impossible. The sanctions target the construction, electricity, and oil sectors, which are essential to getting Syria back on its feet. Although the United States says it is “protecting” Syria’s oil fields in the northeast, it has not given the Syrian government access to repair them, and U.S. sanctions prohibit any firm of any nationality from repairing them—unless the administration wishes to make an exception. Such an exception was recently made for a U.S. firm to manage the oil fields, but oil leaks continue to drain into the Khabour and Euphrates Rivers. U.S. sanctions not only punish people, who receive only an hour or two of electricity a day, but also poison their environment.
The sanctions even prevent non-U.S. aid organizations from delivering reconstruction assistance. Humanitarian exemptions are deliberately vague, as are the requirements that the Syrian government would have to meet in order to obtain sanctions relief. Such uncertainty is meant to deter aid suppliers and investors who might otherwise help Syria rebuild but who can’t be wholly confident that they are in the clear to do so. This chilling effect, known as overcompliance, is a rational response to the fear of inadvertent entanglement in complex legal issues that could destroy a nongovernmental organization or a firm.
Blocked from reconstructing their country and seeking external assistance, Syrians face “mass starvation or another mass exodus,” according to the World Food Program.
Current U.S. sanctions on Syria are among the most extensive and sweeping on any country in the world. Like sanctions on Venezuela and Iran, they are meant to inflict pain on the entire population in order to punish them for the actions of governments they do not control. Crippling Syria’s ability to rebuild from the war will cause more suffering to a population that has already endured more than eight years of conflict. There is no discernible American interest that is served by “competing with Assad over who can hurt Syrian peasants more,” as Landis and Simon put it, but as of right now that is the policy that our government is pursuing. This policy is exacerbating a humanitarian crisis in Syria, and it threatens to trigger a new refugee crisis that will have consequences for all of Syria’s neighbors and for Europe. It is very destructive and needlessly destabilizing. There is nothing peaceful about waging economic war on entire nations.
U.S. policy towards Syria is another example of what Philip Gordon and Jeremy Shapiro have called a “scorched-earth policy apparently designed to destroy what it cannot save”:
Trump has embraced a similar approach in Syria. Having essentially abandoned a policy of seeking to get rid of Bashar al-Assad, U.S. policy now seems to consist of “promoting accountability” of the Assad regime in theory while punishing the Syrian people in practice. The main tool of this approach is the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which imposes sanctions on anyone investing in or providing reconstruction assistance to Syria. The act punishes individuals and corporations that deal with the Syrian energy, military, engineering, or construction businesses operating in government-held regions. The aims of the act are admirable, and no one could be more deserving of harsh punishment than Assad and his enablers. The problem, however, is that the most likely result of the policy will be more suffering for the Syrian people, and spillover effects such as the further destruction of Lebanon’s economy, while Assad and his cronies remain in power.
The pressure campaigns against Syria and the other countries achieve nothing except for causing destruction and bringing added misery to populations that were already suffering. There appears to be no purpose served by this except the satisfaction that the supporters of these policies derive from inflicting pain on countries they dislike. As I said a year ago about sanctions on Iran, the destruction is the point. Supporters of these economic wars cannot point to any results from their policies except for the havoc they have wrought on the lives and livelihoods of innocent people.
It was clear from the beginning that the Syrian people would be the ones to pay the price for these sweeping sanctions. When the first Caesar Act sanctions were being imposed two months ago, I warned that this would be the result. It was entirely predictable that seeking to strangle the Syrian economy would mean choking the life out of the people that depend on it. It isn’t possible to put an entire country under economic siege without doing terrible harm to millions of civilians. That includes people in Lebanon, who were already suffering from the effects of this policy and the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran before the disaster at the port in Beirut. When sanctions are so broad, claiming to have humanitarian exemptions is a bad joke, especially when the sanctions make it so that no financial institutions want to have anything to do with the targeted economy. We have already seen this happening in Iran and Venezuela, and we’re seeing it in Syria and Lebanon now. How many tens of millions of people need to be impoverished and how many thousands have to die from sickness and hunger before we finally repudiate these monstrous policies of collective punishment?