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In the face of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that devastated parts of Turkey and Syria on February 6 — claiming the lives of more than 50,000 people — the Biden administration took a symbolically important but thoroughly insufficient step toward doing the right thing: It temporarily eased certain economic sanctions to allow humanitarian support into a ravaged Syria.
After years of crippling sanctions and efforts to isolate Syria from the rest of the world, Washington’s decision February 9 reflected at least some level of recognition of the quake’s devastation. It also represented a significant victory for activists, including the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and others, who moved swiftly into action to make clear that, if the United States actually wanted to help the Syrian people, lifting sanctions had to be a central part of any relief package.
Perhaps most importantly, the policy change is at least a partial de facto acknowledgement from the White House of the harm that broad economic sanctions inflict. Washington has imposed sanctions on Syria since 1979, and most of the ostensible targets have been government agencies and officials. But ordinary people have felt the impact far more than any elites, as is true under any authoritarian government.
In 2004, President George W. Bush escalated sanctions against Syria in the context of the so-called Global War on Terror. In 2011, as Syria’s Arab Spring uprising was met with severe government repression and Washington joined the widening, emerging proxy wars, the United States froze Syrian government assets, prohibited investment and cut off any purchase involving Syria’s oil industry.
In 2020, the Trump administration dramatically expanded sanctions again. The new law stated the U.S. policy
is that “diplomatic and coercive economic means should be utilized to compel the government of Bashar al-Assad to halt its murderous attacks on the Syrian people and to support a transition to a government in Syria that respects the rule of law, human rights, and peaceful co-existence with its neighbors.” Among other things, the new sanctions prohibited any “contracts related to reconstruction in areas of Syria controlled by the Syrian government and its allies.” Needless to say, none of the sanctions stopped the Syrian government’s repression and human rights violations.
As the Syrian economy continued its slide into full-blown crisis, prohibitions on U.S. financial transactions with Syria prevented most Syrians from traveling to the United States and made it almost impossible for Syrians abroad to provide any assistance to their families.
After the earthquake, the February 9 decision provides a general license to allow earthquake-related humanitarian aid to Syria — but it will only help a fraction of the problems caused by the sanctions, not to mention the other crises facing Syrians. Indeed, the Treasury Department order does not actually lift the sanctions (many of which the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies agree continue to have “long-term negative effects”). Instead, the order authorizes “all transactions related to earthquake relief efforts in Syria that would otherwise be prohibited by the Syrian Sanctions Regulations,” which means all of the sanctions actually remain in place, just with relief-related exceptions. The problem remains that many manufacturers and especially banks will remain reluctant to risk doing any business with Syria, in fear that their tents or computers will be deemed unrelated to relief or the general license could be revoked, leaving them in violation of the sanctions.
A group of 10 UN special rapporteurs on human rights noted an effective emergency earthquake response and recovery must go beyond what the United States has done and should actually include “the lifting of all economic and financial restrictions caused by unilateral sanctions against Syria during this time of sorrow and human suffering.” Their report goes on, “even during natural disasters, when hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake, it is gravely concerning that humanitarian actors face persisting challenges due to sanctions,” and notes, “systems of humanitarian carve-outs may not be sufficient to address the long-term negative effects of sanctions.”
The same problem exists with U.S. sanctions imposed against Iran, Cuba, Afghanistan, Venezuela and a host of other countries. An official statement granting a general license to send humanitarian supplies is simply not enough to solve the problems that U.S. sanctions created in the first place. Those problems can lead to millions of people — children, elders and many more — facing hunger, cold, lack of shelter, lack of medical care. Many have died and many more will die.
In the case of Syria, U.S. sanctions are an important component — but not the only one — of Washington’s role in the country’s already dire pre-earthquake crisis. Direct U.S. involvement in Syria’s wars has played a part in the massive death and destruction of the Syrian people and their communities, which has included arms, training and other military support for opposition forces — some of which ended up assisting the al Qaeda-linked militias in northwest Syria, as well as massive killings of civilians and destruction of cities in U.S. battles against ISIS.
Washington is, of course, not the only bad actor. Millions of Syrians have lived, been dispossessed and died through more than a decade of brutal battles fought in and around their country. A civil war pitted a repressive regime against a popular, initially nonviolent protest movement that eventually took up arms against the authoritarian government in Damascus. A set of parallel wars involved internal, regional and global actors — the United States and Russia, Iran and Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, ISIS, al Qaeda and more — all fighting to the last Syrian. Cities like Raqqa and Aleppo have been attacked by ISIS and leveled by U.S., Russian and Syrian government airstrikes and drone attacks.
Displaced Syrians, and Palestinian, Iraqi and other refugees who sought safety in Syria, all continue to face displacement, struggle to feed their children in the face of a food shortage worsened by the war in Ukraine, and now face the aftermath of an unfathomably powerful earthquake.
The responsibility of the international community — including governments and civil society — to respond to these desperate needs, is enormous. That means providing direct support and solidarity, pushing all of our governments to immediately provide more funds and trained people and equipment, demanding that all crossing points into all parts of Syria be opened and used regardless of which forces are in control — and demanding an end to the sanctions that are making the work of providing support much harder.
Talking about sanctions is particularly relevant right now because we have been immersed in almost a full year of U.S.- and European-led cheerleading for sanctions against Russia. That cheerleading has led many to claim that sanctions are useful, that they play a key role in changing the behavior of human rights-violating governments, and that they are targeted so carefully that ordinary people are not harmed.
None of those things are true.
The sanctions imposed on Russia — including those targeting the oil industry and its vast revenues — didn’t prevent and haven’t reversed Russia’s illegal military assault and occupation of Ukrainian territory. They haven’t even slowed that attack. There’s little evidence the sanctions’ overall impact on the Russian economy is significant; a recent New York Times print edition headline even reads, “Sanctions Haven’t Stopped Flow of Oil Cash to Russia.” But it looks like sanctions are increasing the pain on ordinary people, especially those who don’t grow their own food.
None of this should be historically surprising. In Cuba, U.S. sanctions imposed after the 1959 revolution made economic progress on the socialist island extraordinarily more difficult, prohibiting the trade-dependent island from almost all trade with the huge market just 90 miles away. Other moves made it impossible for Cuba to purchase anything from U.S. companies in other countries, and the Helms-Burton Act in 1996 made sure it would take an act of Congress to end the sanctions. The sanctions have been loosened at various times (significantly so in 2016 when the Obama administration normalized diplomatic relations, but tightened again under Trump), but the sanctions were never ended. (It remains astonishing that Cuba has managed, despite the sanctions, to provide world-class healthcare and education for all of its citizens, with life expectancy and literacy rates all significantly better than those in the United States.)
In Iraq, sweeping U.S. sanctions — some officially unilateral, some imposed with a U.S.-orchestrated fig leaf of UN approval — were imposed before and after the Pentagon’s 1991 “shock and awe” assault that caused massive destruction of much of the country’s water, electrical and building infrastructure in the first Gulf War. The sanctions prohibited all oil sales, crippling the single-industry economy.
The UN eventually created its “Oil-for-Food” program in Iraq, which allowed some oil production under strict controls, with the profits under UN control and UN officials making all decisions about what goods could be imported. Restrictions prohibited ostensibly “dual-use” items (which included pencils, since they include graphite), and limited the number of calories per person per day which would be allowed in. The first Oil-for-Food director, UN Assistant Secretary-General Denis Halliday, long identified the program as “genocidal.” Five years into the sanctions regime, in 1996, then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright acknowledged without hesitation that the sanctions had killed half a million children saying, “We think the price was worth it.”
No one ever identified what Washington received in return for the lethal sanctions. When the United States went to war against Iraq again in 2003, it attacked a country still broken, still unable to heal after more than a decade with some of the most crippling sanctions in history. The link between the consequences of years of sanctions and those resulting from years of military assault showed once again that broad economic sanctions remain an instrument of war, not an alternative.
In Syria, the earthquake’s impact was concentrated in the northern part of the country where the government controls the least territory. People there include some of the most vulnerable — displaced Syrians fleeing government repression and Palestinian refugees whose camps and homes were destroyed by war. Some were forced to move to areas in the northwest controlled by Turkey or extremist followers of the al Qaeda-linked Tahrir al-Sham militia. Thousands of children and women, families of imprisoned ISIS fighters (real and alleged) languish in detention camps in the U.S.-protected Kurdish areas of Syria’s northeast.
The earthquake’s scenes were of desperation: people without tents, food, water, medical support. Crucially, without equipment and trained teams, it was impossible to reach people buried in the rubble. The Syrian government had already closed most of the crossings from Turkey, preventing aid convoys from reaching some of the hardest-hit areas under opposition control. Russia had, before the earthquake, used its Security Council veto to prevent UN agencies from using more than one crossing. (On February 13, the Syrian government agreed to open additional crossings to allow UN access.) The United States — appropriately — sent massive aid to earthquake victims in Turkey, but it sent a relative pittance to those in Syria. The sanctions made everything worse, because not enough supplies were coming into the country at all.
Of course, we still must hold accountable all those responsible for the horrors Syrians have faced since the beginning of the wars raging across their country — the Syrian government for its brutal response to legitimate opposition demands; ISIS for its vicious extremism; the United States and Russia for entering the war — and the list continues. But U.S. sanctions remain one of those huge problems.
The far-flung Syrian diaspora — increased in recent years by several million Syrian refugees who fled early in the war and especially in 2015 — remains unable to send money back home because sanctions prevent banking relations with Syria. Muslim bans, anti-Arab racism and other forms of U.S. xenophobia have continued to prevent most Syrians from seeking safety among their families and compatriots in this country. The U.S. campaign to isolate Syria — the basic rationale for all of the sanctions — means that even access to U.S. embassies or other means of applying for refuge or visas are out of reach.
Meanwhile, the sanctions have done nothing to stop the regime’s human rights violations, and Washington has made clear it will maintain sanctions despite humanitarian and future reconstruction consequences.
So what do broad economic sanctions achieve in Syria? Some targeted specific individuals, identified as perpetrators of Syria’s war and human rights violations, but the sanctions certainly had no impact on government policies. Some prohibited ordinary materials whose absence impacted huge numbers of Syrians and their communities. Much of Aleppo and Raqqa, for example, largely destroyed by Russian, Syrian and U.S. air attacks, have not been rebuilt because sanctions prevented Syria from importing sufficient construction materials. Reconstruction from the earthquake will face the same problem.
Of course, lifting sanctions and allowing in more building materials, tools, computers, food, medicine and emergency equipment does not guarantee the Syrian government will distribute those goods equitably, and chances are it won’t. But having access to additional materials will make winning the ongoing struggle to reverse that discriminatory reality more likely. UN Secretary-General António Guterres called explicitly for lifting all international sanctions — “of any kind” — on Syria, something that would allow a much broader level of expansion of UN operations in earthquake-ravaged areas.
This earthquake is not the first time U.S. sanctions policy revealed its true colors, but the disaster does provide a renewed moment to reconsider why broad economic sanctions must be ended. The United States often imposes sanctions in response to public outrage over human rights crises somewhere in the world — especially countries already on Washington’s bad guy list — when popular opinion demands we “do something!” That reaction — what we used to call the “CNN Factor” during the 1990 – 1991 Gulf crisis, or the “Twitter Factor” today — actually represents a powerful human response. The problem lies with the U.S. government’s limited view of what “something” might look like. Instead of investing in complex, medium- to long-term solutions that might work, sanctions pop up as a quick, telegenic fix that will satisfy public demand and won’t require putting U.S. troops in harm’s way.
Sanctions are like a war, the official thinking seems to be, but with no one getting hurt. But we know plenty of ordinary people do get hurt. And plenty of people die. Plenty of cities are leveled and communities destroyed.
It’s just that they’re not American.
The sanctions don’t stop the human rights violations or change the behavior of authoritarian governments. Instead, they impact vulnerable people and communities. When imposed unilaterally, as the United States so often does, sanctions violate international law, including the UN Charter.
What does a real alternative look like? Investment in serious diplomacy. We need diplomatic efforts to end conflicts, not broad economic sanctions that are too easily imposed, too rarely reconsidered, and reveal their most deadly impact in moments of human disasters.
Sanctions are an instrument of war, not an alternative to war.
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Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Her books include Before & After: US Foreign Policy and the War on Terrorism.