Sanctions against Syria don’t work, only making humanitarian situation dire

Western governments deploy sanctions in full knowledge of whom they affect most and that they achieve little.
Sunday 12/01/2020
Syrian children, who fled air Assad regime/Russian strikes in their hometown, are pictured near tents at an informal camp for displaced people in Syria's Idlib province, January 7. (AFP)
Syrian children, who fled air Assad regime/Russian strikes in their hometown, are pictured near tents at an informal camp for displaced people in Syria's Idlib province, January 7. (AFP)

Syria may have fallen from the headlines but the humanitarian situation on the ground has barely improved.

In north-eastern Syria, a major water shortage is affecting 460,000 people, many of whom were displaced by the Turkish military incursion that began in October, which precipitated the withdrawal of most humanitarian organisations from the area.

In Hasakah province, thousands of tent dwellers, including infants and children, faced sub-freezing temperatures the first weekend in January.

The humanitarian crisis is worsened by US and EU sanctions, ostensibly meant to punish the government of Bashar Assad and its cronies but that, in reality, are crippling poor Syrians the hardest.

In Damascus, a city swollen with hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians, the cost of basic goods such as heating oil and cooking gas rocketed because of the sanctions-related near-collapse of the Syrian lira.

The sick cannot be treated because medical equipment such as MRI machines and CT scanners gather dust in public hospitals. Essential replacement parts for the devices fall under the scope of Western sanctions.

Then, of course, there’s the multi-year tragedy that is Idlib, a region the Washington Post predicted could become “the worst humanitarian crisis in Syria’s civil war.”

“Health facilities are strained as only two out of 16 public hospitals are currently functioning at full capacity in this area,” Najat Rochdi, senior humanitarian adviser to the UN special envoy for Syria, told the International Syrian Task Force in Geneva in November.

Since then, with regime air strikes again displacing tens of thousands of people already forced from their homes, the day-to-day situation has deteriorated.

That’s because the oil that the afflicted province has depended on for years has been stopped since the above-mentioned Turkish incursion cut supplies from eastern Syria. Western sanctions have stopped shipments of Iranian oil from reaching desperate Syrians. Some outlets report people are burning clothes to stay warm.

All the while, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control is sticking to a far-ranging sanctions regime that’s as assiduous as it is cruel. With more than 450 Syrian individuals under sanction, the head has been cut clean off Syria’s business class.

The European Union has “269 persons and 69 entities targeted by a travel ban and an asset freeze.” To be sure their goals, to impede individuals most responsible for the war crimes that destroyed the lives of countless Syrian civilians during the course of the war, are noble. Were they to succeed, the broader Syrian population would eventually benefit.

However, nothing adequately explains why economic sanctions continue to be used against Syrians and others. Decades of sanctions-induced misery have played out in autocracies around the world — Iraq in the 1990s and North Korea, Venezuela and Cuba in the years before and since — have illustrated a simple truth: Economic sanctions almost always fail to achieve their stated goals of bringing an insurgent country or government to heal.

Studies from the 1990s and 2000s stated that sanctions achieve their goals only 5-33% of the time. That’s because, by their very nature, dictatorial leaderships move first and foremost to secure their own interests before their people’s.

“By portraying sanctions as foreign aggression and economic warfare against their country, authoritarian regimes often accuse human rights activists of being allied with the enemy,” wrote academic Hassan Hakimian last year. “From there, it’s a short step to a national security crackdown on such organisations.”

For legitimate businesses attempting to operate in the legal boundaries of the international financial and trade system, one small mistake can result in fines up to $1 million. How are Syrian businesses, many of which have cash reserves to restart their companies, supposed to know which import companies have ties to regime officials — and thus rendered illegal in the eyes of the West — and which are clean?

For Syrian mafiosos and black marketeers using their regime links to access the black market, there are no such worries. The incentive for businesses, therefore, is to gravitate towards the regime — not away from it — to survive and prosper.

All the while Western governments deploy sanctions in full knowledge of whom they affect most and that they achieve little. The European Union says it maintains a commitment to “finding a lasting and credible political solution to the conflict in Syria” but that ship has long since left the dock.

The so-called Caesar Bill, a new US sanctions regime against Syrian leaders and co-conspirators that was enacted in December, offers a potentially new way forward. It encourages negotiations by allowing the US president to rescind sanctions against parties who become involved in “meaningful negotiations.” It may be a small step but one that might lead to a way out for the battered Syrian people.

However, nothing explains why sanctions continue to be deployed when the common consensus is that they don’t work. With such policies being used, why should Syrians trust the West?

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