Even suspended sanctions cause suffering for Syrian earthquake victims

Even suspended sanctions cause suffering for Syrian earthquake victims

After years of a US-led economic blockade, a short humanitarian break is not enough

The effects of the devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake which hit both Türkiye and Syria earlier this month, are being compounded by US sanctions. But despite a temporary relaxation of restrictions on the war-torn and shaken country, problems still exist.

Syrian provinces have still been left ill-prepared to deal with the scale of disaster that has befallen them and must now be given every support to reconstruct their country. According to authorities in Turkey and Syria, as many as 42,000 people have been killed by the devastating quakes, with at least 23 million people affected in total. Millions have been temporarily displaced, and many more still await news on their loved ones and whether or not they survived. The situation as it stands is an utter disaster, and the full impact is impossible to convey in mere words.

In Türkiye’s case, the international community’s response was unanimous; aid was pledged, teams arrived to relieve the suffering and, whatever the political frictions between Istanbul and some Western nations, a sense of universal humanitarian comradery prevailed. The Biden administration in Washington reacted to the natural disaster by pledging “anything that Ankara needed, while the European Union mobilized emergency response and offered its Copernicus satellite mapping service to help first responders in Türkiye.

However, the situation has been very different for Syria with only a few select nations quick to come to its aid. The US government stated that it would not cooperate with Damascus to deal with the carnage inside Syrian territory. The Syrian government officially requested help from the EU, which some EU states instantly refused to provide. The United Kingdom quickly came to the aid of their NATO ally Türkiye, but refused help to the suffering Syrians, and Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky tweeted his condolences to Türkiye and its people in Turkish but failed to acknowledge Syria at all. Syrians were not in the spotlight to receive help from the West and are actively being ignored in spite of the gravity of the situation facing them.

Compounding the difficulties is a plethora of sanctions against the Damascus government, which were applied by the EU, the UK and the US. The worst of these are perhaps the 2019 Caesar Act sanctions, which have severely crippled Syria’s post-war economy and robbed the nation of the ability to reconstruct. 

The US sanctions have indeed been amended for a short period, to allow relief aid to travel into Syria, but the problem with the sanctions is not just that they hindered aid from entering the country for days.

The dire economic situation across Syria’s provinces, a problem preceding the current crisis, has undermined the medical sector’s capacity to deal with the sheer number of dead and injured following an earthquake of this magnitude. According to a number of UN experts, the sanctions imposed upon Syria were already causing a humanitarian crisis and should be lifted.

“With more than half of the vital infrastructure either completely destroyed or severely damaged, the imposition of unilateral sanctions on key economic sectors, including oil, gas, electricity, trade, construction and engineering have quashed national income, and undermine efforts towards economic recovery and reconstruction,” Alena Douhan, UN Special Rapporteur on unilateral coercive measures and human rights, said last year.

The UN has directly linked Syria’s current cholera epidemic to Western sanctions, which have prevented rehabilitation and development of water distribution networks at a time when 12 million Syrians grapple with food insecurity.

According to on-the-ground accounts, during the first few days following the earthquake, there was not enough fuel to transport aid and rescue teams to affected areas quickly. In Syrian government-held areas, electricity only runs for a few hours per day under normal circumstances. Now, given the masses of displaced families, people are suffering in sub-zero temperatures at night.

Exacerbating the issues is that while Syria is rich in natural gas and oil, the US military, along with its proxy forces in the northeast of the country, occupies a third of Syria’s territory, including its oil and gas fields. The most fertile agricultural lands have also been stolen from the Syrian people by US occupation, which was never granted congressional approval back in Washington. Piling onto that pressure, Israel also used the earthquake as an opportunity to claim that the Syrian government had requested aid from it, knowing this would reflect poorly on Damascus. The Syrian government denies this, and although Israel claims the aid would be directed to Syria, it was only sent to Türkiye.

That the US State Department amended its sanctions is a tacit admission that they had prevented aid reaching Syria and that Washington is cognizant of this fact. Efforts to deny that sanctions impeded foreign nations from sending aid to those suffering, for example in The Washington Post are deceptive and done in poor faith.

According to Aron Lund, a fellow with the New York-based think tank Century International, although the sanctions do not technically forbid aid, the reality on the ground is something completely different. Banks often block transfers that are supposed to pay suppliers or local aid workers for fear of breaking sanctions rules, Lund observed, as quoted by the Associated Press. Additionally, the sanctions actually target reconstruction inside Syria, which means that they will block rebuilding efforts, whether the destruction resulted from the 12-year-long war or from the earthquake.

Out of Syria’s four primary border crossings, for years only the Bab al-Hawa crossing into the Idlib province was given a mandate by the UN for delivering aid to Syria. Idlib is controlled jointly between Turkish forces in the north and al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, whereas the Syrian government does not have direct territorial access to the crossing and most countries refuse to use the Damascus International Airport to send aid. 

On top of this, the sole border crossing was severely damaged by the earthquake, depriving roughly 4 million Syrians of aid they depend on. Recently, Syrian President Bashar Assad offered support to civilians living inside the Idlib province, help that was rejected by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The Syrian leader also permitted the opening of two additional crossings into Idlib, a move commended by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

The story that is unfolding in front of our eyes is one of bitter and selfish Western governments that put their obsession for regional hegemony above humanitarian issues. What happened to Syria and Türkiye should not be politicized and should not result in the deaths of those who are not in any way involved.

The sanctions on Syria have killed innocent civilians, and the inaction of the West in aiding the Syrian people at this time is tantamount to abandoning those who could have been saved. If we now know that the sanctions block aid, why is it acceptable that the US only temporarily freeze them? They should not be in place at all, and neither should US forces occupy Syrian territory.

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