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Western sanctions have slowed down aid to Syria, but lifting them will not be enough

"[sanctions have] left many areas, including the northwestern city of Aleppo which experienced the worst earthquakes, in a dire state of disrepair".

By Samuel Pennifold

Syria has been entangled in a bloody civil war since 2011 when protesters – as part of the wider Arab Spring – calling for the removal of Syrian President-come-dictator Bashar al-Assad were violently suppressed resulting in thousands of deaths. Since then, an opposition coalition of various western-backed groups has stood opposed to the Russian-backed Assad regime. This was further complicated by the rise and fall of the Islamic State. Since 2019 many western forces have partially withdrawn from the conflict. Though rebel groups backed by Turkey, a NATO member state which was also affected by the earthquake, currently split control of the worst earthquake-affected northwest region of Syria with the al-Qaeda-linked rebel group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Syria’s northeast region, which was also badly damaged by the earthquake, is mostly controlled by Kurdish-led groups supported by a small US military force.

Several western states have moved to impose unilateral sanctions against the Assad regime instead. In 2019, the US Congress passed the Caesar sanctions, named for the pseudonym adopted by a Syrian military photographer who released photos documenting torture in Assad’s prisons. Such sanctions aim to penalise Assad’s backers in finance and politics abroad who have helped him stay in power since the beginning of the civil war. Though combined with the ongoing hostilities western sanctions have resulted in a perpetual economic and humanitarian crisis. This has left many areas, including the northwestern city of Aleppo which experienced the worst earthquakes, in a dire state of disrepair. 

Unlike in Turkey, where the quake originated near the Turkish city of Gaziantep at 4:17 AM on the 6th of February, aid has been much slower to get to Syria. With little to no aid arriving in the first week. In November 2022, Alena Douhan, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights, said “I am struck by the pervasiveness of the human rights and humanitarian impact of the unilateral coercive measures imposed on Syria, and the total economic and financial isolation of a country whose people are struggling to rebuild a life with dignity”. She warned that the sanctions have perpetuated and expanded the state of suffering within the country since the beginning of the civil war. 

Since the earthquake, grassroots and major international organisations, including the UN who have opposed the sanctions for a long time, have called on the US in particular to lift sanctions against Syria which have made it close to impossible for family members especially to send money to people in the country. The US has now announced a 6-month pause on sanctions relating to humanitarian aid. However, Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo stated that the US sanctions have not directly prevented humanitarian aid at any time, rather they have meant organisations have had to prove any aid is for humanitarian reasons. The new temporary exemption though will remove the burden proof on organisations, hopefully allowing for a quicker process. 

Though it is not definitive that these efforts will make a significant difference to the situation. 

Karam Shaar, a Syrian economist and non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, said the most recent exemption will have “a limited positive impact”. He continued, “the main factor hindering humanitarian aid is not sanctions, it’s the fact that Bashar al-Assad is quite simply a thief”. Even with a hopefully more efficient supply of humanitarian aid to the country, many have criticised Assad, who has demanded total control of humanitarian aid, for allegedly skimming off the top and selling supplies for profit. Some also fear he will withhold aid to the worst affected rebel-held areas. Similar accusations of skimming off the top and selling aid for profit have also been made against Western-backed rebel groups. The deep fissures within Syrian political society are turning the supply of aid into another front in the ongoing civil war.

Since 2019, the international community has largely turned its back on Syria, focusing its attention on other conflicts and leaving the people of Syria at the peril of warring groups. More needs to be urgently done to provide life-saving humanitarian aid to the country and end the perpetual state of conflict within the country. 

Here are some trustworthy places you can donate:

Swiss Red Cross:  https://www.redcross.ch/en/support-us/donate-now?gclid=CjwKCAiA0cyfBhBREiwAAtStHMqY0Dxtxa53fYNbNY3LITGK3CNBowAOXVjyqOD1TVDMlmNIBTK8mhoC6JwQAvD_BwE

UNHRC: https://donate.unrefugees.ch/ch/en-ch/unhcr-syria-emergency?gclid=CjwKCAiA0cyfBhBREiwAAtStHJ1SEvTLrgeKJA0iklg9SfvirtMDoeEphgT2CxQJbnjADOu5sCH8NxoC8tMQAvD_BwE

World Food Programme: https://www.wfp.org/support-us/stories/turkiye-syria-earthquake?utm_source=google&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=19646407116&utm_content=143729673977&gclid=CjwKCAiA0cyfBhBREiwAAtStHO_A5G9eMUzQZiY-dlnvQ7FJcU3zb5IEJB47-VOnUnbmCdUYtRpgEBoCYisQAvD_BwE&gclsrc=aw.ds

Disaster Emergency Committee: https://www.dec.org.uk/?gclid=CjwKCAiA0cyfBhBREiwAAtStHBHhrLZi8WqaWo0Wya-J8AyiQNZGPeh38x5fw94rLQyPjIZt-EJtORoCGtoQAvD_BwE

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