Syria has suffered for long before the devastating earthquake that took place earlier this week. The country was one of the dominos that fell during the Arab Spring in 2011. Where there were little lasting democratic achievements in some nations like Tunisia and Egypt, Syria fell deeper into a long civil war and eventually into a proxy war between the United States and Russia. This caused strained international relations between the US and Syria, leaving many vulnerable Syrians in war-struck areas without basic human necessities. Entering its twelfth year of conflict, the acquisition of these resources is even more difficult as infrastructure has been destroyed. Where Türkiye grasped the international community’s attention, Syria’s plight has been ignored.
The US Sanctions on Syria
Even before the 2011 uprisings, the US began to sanction Syria, banning exports and flights there in 2004 under the Bush Administration as a way to combat terrorism. More sanctions were underway during and following the uprisings, where the Obama Administration responded to the government’s human rights abuses against civilians. Other western nations and international entities, such as the European Union, the United Nations, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia emulated the American sanctions. These sanctions blocked American citizens from any new property investment in Syria, the direct or indirect sale or supply of any services from the United States, imports of any petroleum products of Syrian origin, and any approval, financing, facilitation, or guarantee of a transaction by a foreign person that does any of the prohibited activities.
However, it was under the Trump Administration, and continuously now into the Biden Administration, that the most harsh sanctions exist. The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act (“Ceasar Act”) was signed into law at the end of 2019. This Act not only prohibited Americans from financially affiliating themselves with any person in Syria, but also levied secondary sanctions on foreign persons or entities that “knowingly provides significant financial, material, or technological support to, or knowingly engages in a significant transaction” with the Syrian government.” The purpose behind the Act is to promote accountability for the Assad regime’s violence towards civilians.
Although intentions appear pure, the outcome is catastrophic. In essence, this Act mandates that the US will inflict severe financial penalties onto any person, organization, or country that provides support to Syria. Thus, out of concern for violating the sanctions, no Syrian refugee or concerned American citizen will send financial assistance to Syrians in government-controlled areas; no human rights organization will raise funds to provide Syrians with essential resources such as food, water, medicine, or education; no country will deploy personnel to mitigate the human rights abuses suffered by the Syrian people. Syria and its citizens are completely severed from the US, its allies, or any nation seeking recognition from the western world.
While a majority of Syria is under control of the Syrian government, Northern Syria has been (arguably) liberated by rebel groups, Türkiye, and US-backed Kurdish-led groups. Areas in Northern Syria have been able to acquire some relief from the outside world due to their detachment from the government. Alas, the parts of Syria that are suffering the worst are the parts under the control of the regime.
The Impact of the Sanctions on the Syrian People
Even before the tragic earthquake, humanitarian needs in regime-occupied Syria had reached the “highest levels since the start of conflict back in 2011.” The enactment of the Caesar Act incinerated the Syrian Pound, leaving families dangerously overstretched. In 2010, the exchange rate for the USD to Syrian pound grew from 47 Syrian Pounds for 1 USD to almost 500 in 2019, and to 5,000 Syrian Pounds for 1 USD in the black market in 2022. As a result, 90% of the population lives below the poverty line.
Just two years after the enactment, there was a record increase of more than 800% in prices for staple food items such as bread, oil, and milk. Twelve million Syrians, more than half of the population, struggle with food insecurity. Drinking water has been difficult to obtain as irrigation has seriously declined from the number of damaged facilities during the conflict. Trade restrictions have prevented access to materials to rebuild the infrastructure of these facilities. Induced by sanctions, Türkiye’s development of hydroelectric projects has restricted water flow of the Euphrates River to Syrian agricultural lands.
Additionally, power outages are frequent, leaving many families in the dark and cold. Syrians have been unable to import oil and petroleum products, resulting in heating, transportation, and industry shortages.
When Syrians inevitably fall ill after living under intolerable conditions, they are unable to attain life-saving medicines. Despite medicines and medical devices not technically being subject to the sanctions, foreign pharmaceutical producers withdrew from Syria out of fear of restrictions in the processing of payments, shipping goods, and possibly having to deal with the Syrian government.
When humanitarian organizations advertise that donations directly impact the lives of Syrians, they are really talking about Syrian refugees who have fled the country or those who live in areas occupied by militant opposition groups. With significant losses in the value of humanitarian aid from exchange rate movements and fear of possible breaches of the sanctions, it becomes too complicated to lawfully gain access into land governed by the regime, leaving the most vulnerable Syrian citizens unsupported. The best that humanitarian organizations can do is aid surrounding areas that will send personnel through Bab al-Hawa, the only access into the rebel-held area from outside of Syria. Usually, over 1,000 truckloads of supplies from Türkiye pass through Bab al-Hawa, into Northwest Syria each month. However, this aid rarely reaches the Syrians who need it most.
The Impact of the Earthquake
Two earthquakes hit Türkiye and Syria on Monday, February 6, 2023. The first registered at a magnitude of 7.8, which is one of strongest earthquakes to hit the region in 100 years. The second registered at a magnitude of 7.5. As of Friday, February 10, the earthquake has taken the lives of over 22,700 people in affected areas. Hundreds of thousands of people are now homeless, during the coldest months of winter.
The earthquake and its aftermath temporarily closed the Bab al-Hawa crossing. Thankfully, it has since been reopened, allowing the United Nations to dispatch its first convoy, following a three-day hiatus. During their absence, almost 4,000 Syrians died, with high numbers of fatalities expected to climb as many people remain trapped. Over 11,000 families are displaced as more than 2,000 buildings are completely destroyed and more than 5,100 buildings are partially destroyed. This is particularly frightening because homelessness is forcing Syrians onto land that is riddled with hidden mines and explosives.
The primary needs include heavy machines for debris removal, cash distribution, tents, isolation sheets, heating materials, emergency food, water trucking and garbage removals, ambulances and medicines, fuel for hospitals and health centers, transportation, and safe spaces for women and girls. Hospitals are overwhelmed and in need of blood donations, burial bags, and fuel for generators.
The Intersection of Sanctions and the Earthquake
“Jill and I were deeply saddened by the news of the devastating earthquakes that have thus far claimed thousands of lives in Türkiye and Syria,” President Biden said in his White House Statement. “Our teams are deploying quickly to begin to support Turkish search and rescue efforts and address the needs of those injured and displaced by the earthquake.” While this message may be well-intentioned, it falls short because there is no acknowledgement of how the US will address the dire situation faced by Syrians. Rather, all President Biden says is, “U.S.-supported humanitarian partners are also responding to the destruction in Syria.” As of February 8, the US had deployed more than 150 search-and-rescue personnel to rescue people in Türkiye.
In response to a criticism for abandoning Syrians, Ned Price, Department Spokesperson, said that “it would be quite ironic, if not even counterproductive, for us to reach out to a government that has brutalized its people over the course of a dozen years now – gassing them, slaughtering them, being responsible for much of the suffering that they have endured. Instead, we have humanitarian partners on the ground who can provide the type of assistance in the aftermath of these tragic earthquakes.”
However, even though the implementation of the Caesar Act exempts humanitarian aid in all areas of Syria, the reality of the situation is different from theorized outcomes that aid would still find its way into affected areas despite the sanctions. In practice, banks frequently block transfers made to pay suppliers for aid organizations due to fear of violating the sanctions.
Much of Aleppo was destroyed during the Syrian Civil War. Thus when the earthquake hit, the war-torn city was the least prepared to handle the aftermath. In just that city, over 100,000 people are believed to have become homeless as a result of the natural disaster. Unlike opposition-held regions of Syria, Aleppo is under control of the Syrian government, therefore completely cut off from the western world, its aid, and its sympathy.
Syrians must not be assumed to have built immunity against feelings of terror and anguish. The explosion of bombs and the violent shaking of the earth is not something one fears any less having experienced it so often. The very humanitarianism that the west promises to uphold is undermined by its deliberate ignorance of the plight of Syrians. Let us not forget that the thousands who are perishing to the wrath of the earthquake are not just faceless victims. They are humans with families, aspirations, and dignity that deserve to be rescued and protected.
But perhaps Syrians don’t want help from the United States. Perhaps they would refuse aid from an American plane if it were to land in front of them with enough supplies to save a village. Perhaps what they want more than any of that is for the US to lift its sanctions.
The United States is punishing the very people it claims it wishes to absolve. Despite over eleven years of sanctions, the Syrian regime has yet to show any inclination of submission, peaceful resolution of the conflict, or an end to human rights violations. Meanwhile, the combined impact of conflict and sanctions has had destructive effects on the health of the Syrian people.
Urgent action is needed to help the people of Syria. Every day that the west delays in lifting its sanctions is a day that more lives are lost. The situation is dire, with people still trapped beneath rubble. The humanitarian crisis in Syria continues to escalate. It is time for the international community to take meaningful action and provide the support that the Syrian people so desperately need.
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Author Biography: Dahlia Mohamed is a Moderator of the International Law Society’s International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and a J.D. Candidate at The George Washington University Law School. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Government & International Politics and Conflict Analysis & Resolution from George Mason University.
Edited by: Samantha Hoover and Avery Morrow