Syrian Earthquake Victims Are Paying the Price for Flawed US Foreign Policy

Rather than accept that its foreign policy objectives in Syria have failed, the United States is continuing to dig its heels in. And as the recent earthquake shows, the Syrian people — not Bashar al-Assad’s government — are the ones paying the price.

Earthquake damage in Afrin Region, Syria, February 8, 2023. (Alaa Ealyawi / Wikimedia Commons)

After back-to-back earthquakes devastated areas surrounding the Turkish-Syrian border and took the lives of tens of thousands, the Biden administration temporarily lifted sanctions placed on the Syrian government in order to expedite international aid. This response has sparked renewed debate about the ethics and efficacy of the US-led sanctions on Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian administration in Syria. Progressive groups in the United States and the Assad government itself have called for a permanent end to the sanctions in the wake of the earthquake, while liberals and conservatives alike warn against further capitulation to the Assad administration.

The sanctions placed on the Syrian government were legislated by the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, passed in 2019 by the Trump administration. The act was billed as an effort to hold the Assad government accountable for war crimes committed in the civil war that has engulfed the country since 2011, a conflict that was inflamed by US-led foreign intervention. The United States had long eyed the overthrow of the Iran- and Russia-aligned Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad, whose father Hafez’s internal coup of the Ba’ath party saw the country’s political life cohere around an authoritarian cult of personality. Still reeling from the invasion of Iraq, the United States saw civil unrest in Syria during the Arab Spring as an opportunity to influence regime change. Foreign intervention in Syria caused the unrest to spiral into a seemingly never-ending, ongoing civil war that has been a battleground of international tensions between Russia, Iran, and the United States.

Still embroiled in conflict and now effectively cut off from the global economy, the Syrian economy immediately collapsed after the sanctions were passed in 2019. Contrary to the Caesar Act’s purported aims, Syrian civilians rather than the Assad government have borne the brunt of the sanctions’ fallout, with government-connected firms raking in profits through contracts with foreign relief agencies that allow them to siphon off aid.

The damage wrought in Syria by the recent earthquake must be understood against this backdrop. Though the incident itself is a natural disaster, the level of suffering in its wake was made possible by economic barriers and political tensions that continue to stagnate due to US foreign policy standing by flawed sanctions.

Gridlock Versus Civil War

While the sanctions’ role in exacerbating the conditions Syrians face under the Assad government has drawn criticism by the UN and human rights activists, some Syrian analysts are wary of the impact its permanent removal would have on the current delicate (im)balance of domestic Syrian politics still embroiled in civil war. The strain of the sanctions has tentatively paused the war efforts of the government, which managed to recapture large swathes of territory prior to the Caesar Act. While the conflict has not ended, with Syria and Turkey continuing to siege the left-wing Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration in the northwest, the sanctions have massively de-escalated the violence — albeit at the economic expense of the Syrian people.

But the reality on the ground is that the Assad government has effectively already won the civil war, “in the sense that the war was primarily about whether he remained in power,” as Christopher Phillips, professor of international relations at Queen Mary, University of London, frames it. While the United States has remained steadfastly opposed to any normalization with the Syrian state, Assad’s government has enjoyed a slow rehabilitation in the region, including by US allies such as the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.

“If we know that Western countries are not genuinely invested in a political solution in Syria, should we continue to support sanctions?” asked Syrian political economist Karam Shaar of this effective stalemate. “I am not sure that we should — or at least not sanctions with the current setup.”

Ultimately, the onus for effecting any real conclusion to the civil war is on the foreign powers that inflamed the conflict that led to the current gridlock. The sanctions on Syria have effectively become baked into the current fragile status quo. Many see them as more favorable than full-blown civil war, even with a continuously collapsing economy amid heightened global inflation. Whether this status quo is sustainable for Syrians is another question, with poverty rapidly escalating and sanctions blocking earthquake victims from receiving much of the international aid sent so far.

While the pragmatism informing these nuanced perspectives against the lifting of sanctions does hold sound reasoning, the fallout of the earthquake has magnified the absurdity of the situation. Earthquake victims are being expected to shoulder the financial burden of US-led sanctions and the Assad government’s corruption in order to contain a civil conflict escalated by this very government and later inflamed by US-led intervention. Rather than accepting defeat in its objective of ousting the Iranian- and Russian-aligned Syrian government and confronting the consequences of the foreign intervention that tried to make that happen, US foreign policy prefers maintaining this unsustainable frozen conflict at the expense of the Syrian people.

Futile Foreign Policy

The temporary lifting of sanctions on Syria in order to deal with the immediate crisis has exposed the broader futility of sanctions in curbing government corruption, and subsequently of US foreign policy on the civil war. International sanctions do not function as diplomatic tools that accelerate gradual regime change and human rights reform, as the Syrian example shows. Rather, they are a draconian tool of financial domination that attempts to cover up foreign policy shortcomings and failure at the expense of both the populations they’re purported to help (as seen in Syria) and the global economy (see the domino effect of Russian sanctions).

It’s a hard pill to swallow, but the United States must accept that the Assad government is going nowhere anytime soon. Sanctions are only painfully extending the slow fall of the opposition, which has been pushed back into besieged enclaves far from the capital of Damascus. A new foreign policy approach is required: the lifting of sanctions can be used as a bargaining chip in mediating a power-sharing agreement that would put an end to the conflict, while ensuring the opposition’s survival and bringing the Syrian population back into the international economy’s fold.

In digesting this concession to the Assad government, it is important to stress the tragedy of the Syrian Arab Spring. Syrians saw their grassroots movement for freedom of speech, democracy, and improved standards of living hijacked by foreign interests opposing and supporting the Assad government for reasons that had little do with their own lives. The Syrian people were left to bear the brunt of a violent civil war and later sanctions, only to see a return to the dictatorial status quo that first sparked the protests-turned-conflict. The best possible conclusion of the events of the past twelve years is to end up back where they started.

While the picture on the ground appears bleak, effectively resetting the Syrian political landscape may give its people the opportunity to organize and surmount a more effective challenge to the Assad government in the future — one revolving around grassroots change and not hijacked by foreign interests.