China, Russia push for lifting of sanctions on Syria over pandemic

Any lifting of sanctions would require approval of the United States or least no objection from the Trump administration.
Sunday 05/04/2020
Medical workers oversee the disinfection of streets in order to halt the spread of the new coronavirus in Qamishli, Syria.  (AP)
Pandemic amid war. Medical workers oversee the disinfection of streets in order to halt the spread of the new coronavirus in Qamishli, Syria. (AP)

BEIRUT - Russia and China are leading an effort at the United Nations (UN) to lift sanctions on Syria, using COVID-19 to justify their efforts. To date, two Syrians have died in the pandemic, raising concern of how the war-torn country will cope if and when there is an outbreak, especially in the Syrian north. On April 1, Syrian authorities sealed off an entire town in the Damascus countryside, where one of the victims died, and a 6pm-to-6am curfew is in place throughout the country, along with a complete lockdown.

Addressing the UN Security Council, China’s UN ambassador, Zhang Jun, said: “We are seriously concerned about the negative impact of unilateral sanctions on countries’ capacity to respond to the pandemic, especially for vulnerable ones such as Syria.

His call was echoed both by UN Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock and Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen. On March 27, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for the “waiving of sanctions that can undermine countries’ capacity to respond to the pandemic,” shortly after the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs made a similar appeal to the international community.

Crippling sanctions 

US and EU sanctions have had a grinding effect on the Syrian medical sector, where it has become impossible to import new equipment or spare parts, especially if the end-user is affiliated in any manner with the Syrian government. Only state-run hospitals are equipped to conduct the COVID-19 tests or to quarantine patients. According to a recent study by the London School of Economics (LSE), there are 111 public hospitals in Syria, 58 of which are fully functional, 27 are partially operational and 26 are fully destroyed. The report says there are only 650 ICU hospital beds in both the public and private sectors and only 325 of them are equipped with ventilators. The lifting or easing of sanctions, if it happens, will help revive the medical sector but it needs to go hand-in-hand with waivers on the banking sector as well. These latter sanctions, imposed by the US Treasury Department, make it impossible to transfer money out of Syria or to trade in American dollars.

A political precedent 

The diplomatic effort sets a precedent for China in the nine-year Syrian conflict, where its role in the past had been restricted to using its veto power at the UN to obstruct resolutions not to its liking or those of its Russian ally, President Vladimir Putin. China has already spearheaded an international assistance programme in response to COVID-19, sending testing kits, ventilators and medical experts to a handful of nations affected by the coronavirus, including Italy, Philippines and Serbia.

“China is supporting the removal of international sanctions against Syria for its long-term geopolitical interests,” said Sean Yom, a senior fellow at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. Speaking to The Arab Weekly, he explained: “The justification may be humanitarian, in terms of removing constrictions due to the global public health crisis, but the goals are very much pragmatic.”  He sees this as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious project launched by the Chinese government in 2013 aimed at infrastructure and investment projects in 70 countries across the world, along with a China-centred trading network. “This will not necessarily persuade the West but it does mark the latest stage in the normalisation of the Syrian strategy and the recognition that the Syrian regime is not going anywhere.”

Since the mid-1960s, China has sent goods and arms to Syria, with trade standing at $2.2 billion in 2010. In July 2018, Beijing promised $20 billion in loans and $106 million in financial aid to countries in the Middle East. It has already received a multitude of Syrian officials, including Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem, who discussed counterterrorism, economics and reconstruction. During the course of the war, China has donated public transportation buses and ambulances and electric generators, helping address the country’s chronic electricity shortage. The estimated cost of Syria’s reconstruction varies anywhere from $200-400 billion. The EU has made it clear that it will not pitch in so long as no political process is under way and so have many Arab states, especially after the passing of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act by the US in 2019. One of the most important Chinese companies eyeing re-entry into Syria is its National Petroleum Company, a state-owned giant that owns stakes in two of Syria’s government-run oil companies, with assets estimated at 21 billion barrels.

Any lifting of sanctions would require approval of the United States or at least no objection from the Trump administration should the Europeans decide to engage with the Chinese on Syria.

“The United States is far and away the most important player in determining whether or not there will be any relief with the widespread sanctions placed on Syria,” said David Lesch, a professor of history at Trinity University in Texas and a biographer of President Bashar Assad. “The Trump administration does not seem particularly interested in lifting sanctions without something substantial in return, especially a reduction in the Iranian presence. The coronavirus hitting Syria hard could alter the equation, a bit.”

5