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Sanctioning Syrians Under the Rubble

Time will tell if Washington’s sanctions waiver serves to ease the suffering of Syrians.

A man is seen on the rubble of the destroyed Habib-i Neccar
(Photo by Murat Kocabas/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

By some estimates, there are many more thousands of bodies still under the rubble as the death toll from last week's catastrophic earthquake in Turkey and Syria soars past 34,000. The quake and tremors that followed resulted in an additional 80,000 injured being treated in hospitals and well over a million left homeless across an impact zone twelve times the size of Belgium.

Given that southern Turkey was ground zero and witnessed entire cities obliterated across the Hatay region, international broadcasts focused most attention on rescue efforts and heartbreaking footage emerging there; but while the large-scale destruction and mass casualties across the border in Syria soon became apparent, the presence on the Syrian side of rescue operations with access to essential professional excavating equipment was much less evident.


While reporting from the utterly destroyed town of Jinderis in the northwest part of the country, a Washington Post correspondent highlighted Friday that Syria became an afterthought in terms of international aid efforts. “It took four days and nights after the earthquake for the rubble to fall silent here. The strongest voices belonged to the women, residents said,” wrote Louisa Loveluck. She was told of helpless victims expiring under the debris of leveled buildings: “Parted from their children, or fighting to save them, they screamed until their lungs gave out.”

Instead of such heart-shattering scenes inspiring Western countries to quickly ramp up humanitarian aid shipments and send teams of rescue workers to Syria, a country already on its knees following a decade of war, a fierce polarized debate was renewed over the continuation of U.S.-led sanctions that have for years effectively blockaded the country from much of the outside world and sent the economy into tailspin collapse.

On one side is a cadre of influential think tank pundits, Washington policy advisers, and what might be called professional opposition activists who have from the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011 pushed for muscular regime change efforts targeting President Assad. One key policy adviser behind the most wide-ranging sanctions ever placed on the Syrian government, formally called the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019, has previously been very open in acknowledging the deleterious result of sanctions on the people and broader Syrian society.

Dana Stroul, who currently serves as the Biden administration’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, once bragged that most of Syria is “rubble” and the U.S. can still “hold the line on preventing reconstruction.” Given that Assad and his government survived the war, the sanctions by design are meant to prevent reconstruction of the country and in effect act as a final weapon in America’s regime change arsenal, she and other sanctions architects have argued. 

On the other side stands United Nations humanitarian officials, international charity organizations, and church leaders—including the Middle East Council of Churches and World Council of Churches (WCC). They argue that U.S.-led sanctions ultimately punish the common people first and foremost, who are now enduring the double-suffering of an earthquake disaster on top of the years-long death and destruction of war. “We urge the immediate lifting of sanctions on Syria and allowing access to all materials, so sanctions may not turn into a crime against humanity,” reads a February 7 joint message from the ecumenical church organizations.


In an ominously prescient warning issued just ten days before the Feb. 6 earthquake centered on Kahramanmaras city rocked the broader region, U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley said that if the international community didn't address the already long-running humanitarian crisis in Syria, “things are going to get worse than we can possibly imagine.”

Beasley made the Jan. 27 appeal from Damascus, seat of the Assad government, in what can be seen as a subtle act of defiance given the extensive sanctions regime in place. “Following 12 years of brutal conflict, an economy crippled by runaway inflation, a currency that has collapsed to a record low and soaring food prices, 12 million people do not know where their next meal is coming from,” he described.

The earthquake hit a mere days after the U.N.'s WFP declared hunger in the country had reached a 12-year high, strongly suggesting human misery had already been worse across the broader population than at any point over the course of the prior war, impacting all political orientations and communities, whether pro- or anti-government. 

A letter penned by the “Heads of the Churches in Syria” issued the day after the earthquake made clear their position that “the unjust sanctions imposed on the Syrian people” are to blame for severely exacerbating the suffering. Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch John X, along with Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Aphrem Ignatius II and Melkite Catholic Patriarch Joseph I (collectively representing an estimated pre-war Christian population of 1.5 million in Syria), conveyed the enormity of tragedy upon tragedy still unfolding, writing,

This natural disaster adds to the ordeal of the Syrian people, who continue to suffer from the tragedies of war, crises, disasters, epidemics, and the harsh economic hardships resulting from inflation, the absence of indispensable materials, medications, and daily basic necessities needed in order for people to survive and live in dignity.

But to illustrate how quickly the regime-change crowd sprang into action against such appeals, literally the day prior to the Washington Post report documenting that screams were fast falling silent beneath the rubble, the same publication chose to run an op-ed titled “Lifting sanctions on Syria won’t help earthquake victims.” In it, a Syrian-American opposition activist author, Wa'el Alzayat, argued that Washington must not cave to the “well-meaning civil society and religious groups” urging that sanctions be dropped for the sake of humanitarian aid access. The logic goes that lifting or even softening sanctions will only legitimize the Assad government and help line the pockets of corrupt officials. 

Alzayat is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute (MEI), a D.C. think tank that for years lobbied in favor of the Caesar Act sanctions. Among MEI’s most visible representatives on Syria matters is Charles Lister, who has in recent days openly vented his anger and frustration that World Food Programme officials are daring to distribute earthquake aid in impacted Aleppo city, which Lister underscored is “held by Assad's regime” and thus he deems U.N. officials focusing aid efforts there as “problematic”. 

Such thinking has throughout the conflict in effect dehumanized those Syrians who happen to live under government rule, which remains the majority of the population. Fares Shehabi, an outspoken Syrian politician who is a Member of Parliament (MP) representing Aleppo, dismissed the arguments of the MEI’s Alzayat and Lister as the ravings of “monsters and zombies” for their aid-denying cruelty to the Syrian population.

Until just days ago, this camp pushing strict sanctions has won out. This resulted in a situation wherein even GoFundMe has blocked and canceled crowdfunded earthquake relief efforts on suspicions that money raised could go to people in government-held areas, according to recent testimonies of a number of individuals and organizations. This is a war-ravaged country that Washington, European nations, and Gulf allies had no qualms about pouring hundreds of millions of dollars in weaponry into while fueling a proxy war to oust Assad.

But something very unexpected happened at the end of last week. The United States announced a six-month sanctions waiver aimed at narrowly providing exemptions for all transactions related to disaster relief for Syria. It marks an extremely rare moment in which the U.S. administration apparently felt and responded to the greater collective pressure of the humanitarian and religious organizations that stand against sanctions, rather than going the way of the beltway think tank crowd and powerful ranks of hawkish foreign policy advisers.

“I want to make very clear that U.S. sanctions in Syria will not stand in the way of life-saving efforts for the Syrian people,” Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo said while somewhat on the defensive, commenting on the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) releasing the temporary change in sanctions policy Thursday.

Kamal Alam, a U.K.-based regional analyst who himself has been involved in organizing humanitarian relief cargo flights to places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria via several non-profit organizations, told The American Conservative that this positive and welcome, albeit temporary, development of the sanctions waiver is itself an implicit acknowledgement of Washington's contradictory policy. “The Biden administration claims Caesar Act sanctions already contained strong exemptions, but now they see the need to issue a waiver to let humanitarian aid in, begging the question of whether robust exemptions were really there in the first place. Regardless, the reality is that with U.S. Senate and House members still so gung-ho for punishing the Assad government, it won't be that easy [to get aid in],” he said.

Alam continued, “So unless it’s through the same organizations working in northwest Syria, then it's going to be difficult.” He was referring to al-Qaeda–controlled Idlib and the controversial groups working only in opposition-held areas, such as the White Helmets. He added less than optimistically: “Let’s see how the waivers actually help practically speaking, but I don't see anything at the moment on the ground.”

Alam further described Syria sanctions being a significant concern for church leaders overseeing relief organizations during personal conversations he had while attending the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., held early this month. “There's a great willingness to help Syria, but even non-profit religious organizations are in fear of unknowingly running afoul of US sanctions.” He says he’s taking a wait-and-see approach as the Biden admin's new waiver goes into effect, but laments it’s ultimately “too little, too late for those buried under the rubble.”

A Syria-based United Nations official who wishes to remain unnamed listed some specific ways in which sanctions are currently hindering the earthquake response. “Existing sanctions rules prohibit the import of machines or parts of these machines. So currently the government and rescue workers don't have the big tracks or excavators necessary to remove the rubble left by the earthquakes.” The official stressed that “Syria is not even allowed to import medical instruments from the U.S., nor can it legally update software for existing instruments. So life-saving machines here are no longer technically supported.”

“While these acts in fact affected civilians before the earthquake, now it is even worse,” the official continued. “This is why some experts believe the new sanctions waiver is not in any way a real lifting of the embargo, especially concerning equipment which was urgently needed days ago when the clock was ticking, after buildings collapsed.”

Given that some regional seismology institutions are now predicting that aftershocks could be felt for weeks, or even months to come, and with rescue efforts in many places in Turkey and Syria only barely beginning, the clock is indeed ticking and time will tell if Washington's sanctions waiver in the end serves to ease Syrians' suffering. 

Meanwhile, the message of those urging the entirety of U.S. sanctions must be lifted remains clear: Stop sanctioning Syrians under the rubble.


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