Beyond the Earthquake, Syrians Need US Sanctions Lifted

The Biden administration has thankfully lifted the sanctions on Syria to provide for earthquake relief. It’s a good first step. The next: lift the sanctions regime entirely.

A half-collapsed house in the town of Azaz, Syria, on February 7, 2023. (Bakr Alkasem / AFP via Getty Images)

Last week saw a much-needed victory for basic decency, when the Biden administration announced a six-month-long temporary exemption to US sanctions on Syria for earthquake relief aid. Announcing condolences to those suffering, a US Treasury official made clear the sanctions regime “will not stand in the way of life-saving efforts for the Syrian people.”

This was an obvious and urgent response to one of the more horrific natural disasters in recent memory, a massive earthquake across Turkey and Syria that has killed thirty-five thousand people and counting, and which has left five million needing shelter and who knows how many buried beneath the wreckage. The more-than-decade-long US and EU sanctions aren’t the only obstacle to humanitarian relief reaching civil war–torn Syria, which is also bedeviled by authoritarian president Bashar al-Assad’s government’s own blocking of aid into rebel-controlled territory, and by its work with ally Russia to close UN-opened border crossings from Turkey. The only one of those crossings left open is now too damaged to use.

But given that Syria’s civil war won’t be resolved anytime soon, and there’s little Americans can do to change the behavior of Syria’s or Russia’s governments, lifting the sanctions was a clear way the US government could make a positive and immediate impact on earthquake relief.

It was also a tacit admission that the claim made by US officials themselves in the midst of this tragedy — that US and EU sanctions actually have “no effect in the delivering of assistance” — wasn’t really true.

US observers will need to be vigilant and make sure Joe Biden’s general license doesn’t end up just a handy bit of administration PR. Already, some experts are eyeing it and its wording skeptically, and there are reports that aid is still only trickling in. Of course, there’s also an easier way to make sure aid isn’t blocked from getting to where it desperately needs to go: just lift the sanctions on Syria entirely.

Washington’s justification for keeping them in place is already nonsensical and far from helpful to the region. Both US and EU officials, as well as cheerleaders of the sanctions outside of government, insist it would be “counterproductive” to “reach out to a government that has brutalized its people” and charge that keeping them in place is worth it to punish a dictator “trying to exterminate” his own people.

The charges that Assad has brutalized Syrians are certainly true. But as is almost always the case, the sanctions aren’t punishing Syria’s brutally repressive government. Syrian officials have adjusted to those sanctions; they not only remain in power, but seem to have settled in more comfortably. The only ones being punished by Western sanctions are, perversely, the innocent Syrian people on whose behalf we’re told those sanctions are being imposed.

And that punishment has been severe. Sanctions have driven up food insecurity, they’ve blocked or driven up the price of life-saving medicine while causing a shortage of hospital supplies and equipment, and they’ve exacerbated a fuel shortage that’s led to electricity rationing with deadly results. All of this is worsened by a currency in free fall — a situation that sanctions are also contributing to.

So it’s no surprise that, pointing to the country’s stunning 90 percent poverty rate, a UN-appointed human rights expert last year called for lifting the sanctions on Syria, shocked by “the pervasiveness of the human rights and humanitarian impact” of the restrictions. For similar reasons, a panel of UN experts also just called for the same thing not long after the Biden administration issued its general license, warning that “such systems of humanitarian carve-outs may not be sufficient to address the long term negative effects of sanctions.” After all, if the sanctions were already having a multiplier effect on the unresolved crises that plagued the country before the quake, adding one more disaster on top of this is obviously going to make things significantly worse.

It’s not just the UN. Long before the earthquake, the sanctions regime was widely recognized as a failure. No less than the hawkish Atlantic Council admitted last month that “US sanctions on Syria aren’t working.”

The problem is that the breadth and complexity of the sanctions — which targeted whole sectors of the Syrian economy — means that aid agencies have been inherently impacted, humanitarian exemptions or not. Some restricted items are “dual use”; chlorine, for instance, is used for both weapons and for sanitation and water treatment. Sanctions can delay or outright block aid work, as agencies struggle to access non-sanctioned essential services, basic supplies, and laboriously parse the tangled process of ensuring their compliance with the sanctions regime. Often, it just encourages overcompliance, as banks, insurance companies, shipping firms, and even humanitarian organizations decide the risk isn’t worth it and bow out.

If the basic morality of ending this pointless and cruel regime isn’t enough to persuade the people in power to do so, then maybe cold, hard national interests might. The Russian and Chinese governments are already using US sanctions as grist for propaganda in the midst of this tragedy, as Washington and Europe battle both states for the hearts and minds of the Global South.

In other words, there’s no good reason, either morally, practically, or politically, for the United States not to go further than Biden’s general license and end these sanctions on Syria entirely. And there’s certainly no defensible reason for Europe to continue refusing to take even the half-step the Biden administration has taken and issue some kind of exemption. The US and EU governments can keep insisting they’re acting in the Syrian people’s best interests, but it’s not likely those buried under rubble will hear them.