March 2023 will mark 12 years of war in Syria. No country should reach such a tragic milestone.
What began in March 2011 as an uprising for Syrian dignity against President Bashar al-Assad’s corruption and authoritarian rule has since morphed into several, ongoing proxy wars involving Russia, Iran, Israel, the U.S., Turkey, and several rebel groups, including jihadists. Over 300,000 Syrians have been killed. The country is still suffering the world’s largest displacement crisis.
Following the devastating February earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, problems immediately surfaced with delivering humanitarian aid to a fractured Syria, compounded by existing sanctions on Syria imposed by the U.S., Canada, and the EU. In the U.S., this has sparked debate over whether U.S. unilateral sanctions should be lifted to help facilitate recovery, or whether they should be maintained in an effort to hold the Assad regime accountable for widespread human rights abuses.
The discussion over the efficacy of these economic sanctions has been muddied, with legislators, policymakers, and others quick to conflate their removal — even temporarily for earthquake relief — with “rewarding” Assad. This narrative misses the larger point, and is moreover degrading. In the midst of grieving for their dead, searching for loved ones trapped under the rubble, seeking shelter, and struggling to feed their families, it suggests to Syrians that because of the regime in charge, support for them even during multiple crises must still be qualified.
If history is any guide, then the path forward is clear. As the research has consistently demonstrated, sanctions have rarely achieved their stated goals, and Syria is only the latest example of this failure.
The Logic of Sanctions
Economic sanctions are coercive economic measures that seek to alter state and non-state actors’ conduct found to offend another state’s national security interests or international norms.
Sanctions can take several forms: freezing or blocking state or individual assets, restricting certain imports or exports, or enforcing trade embargoes. They may be implemented unilaterally, as “primary” sanctions against direct transactions between two countries, and also as “secondary” sanctions that target third-party transactions by other states or entities. In addition, sanctions may be imposed multilaterally, notably by the UN Security Council.
One common theory behind comprehensively sanctioning a target state’s economy is that the damage inflicted will provoke the citizenry to rise up and overthrow the ruling class. However, this result has not been achieved in cases such as Syria, Russia, Venezuela, North Korea, Iraq, and Cuba.
In recent years, the U.S. and international community have used economic sanctions intended to hold leaders accountable for serious human rights violations, such as in Iran, Venezuela, and Syria, to name a few. But by targeting a state’s economy, scholars have found that sanctions often deprive civilians of their own rights due to mounting poverty, hunger, unemployment, and altogether deteriorating living conditions.
U.S. Unilateral Sanctions on Syria
The U.S. first enacted unilateral sanctions against Syria in 1979, then imposed successive rounds in the mid-2000s and in 2011. The last round curtailed most remaining trade between the two countries and further sanctioned individuals in the Syrian government (including Assad) as well as prominent businessmen.
In 2019, Congress expanded sanctions under the “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act” to include secondary sanctions that prohibit third-country individuals and companies from engaging in specific types of business with the Syrian government and also individually sanctioned persons and companies in Syria. For example, the Act broadly sanctions any “foreign person” who provides “goods, services, technology, information, or other support” that facilitates Syria’s domestic production of natural gas and oil.
According to the Caesar Act’s statement of policy, these sanctions are intended to be “coercive economic means” to “support a transition” in government in Syria “that respects the rule of law.” But with Assad still in power, it’s clear such a maximum pressure strategy has failed to achieve its intended results in Damascus.
The more comprehensive UN multilateral sanctions on Iraq from 1991-2003 had a similar intent, but instead further cemented Saddam Hussein’s regime and caused innocent Iraqis to suffer from widespread malnutrition, poverty, and infant mortality.
Impact of U.S. Sanctions on Syria
Since taking effect in June 2020, the Caesar Act’s secondary sanctions have further exacerbated harm to an already damaged and sanctioned Syrian economy due to their extraterritorial reach: they apply to any transactions that engage the Syrian government or sectors of its economy, even to those without a connection to the U.S.
The legality of extraterritorial unilateral sanctions under international law, including the 1996 Helms-Burton Act that tightened and codified the ongoing U.S. embargo on Cuba, has long raised red flags. A December 2019 UN General Assembly resolution condemned such sanctions as unlawful for inflicting undue suffering on civilians.
After visiting Syria last year to assess the impact of unilateral economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and other countries, Alena Douhan, the UN’s independent expert on sanctions, called for their immediate lifting in November, concluding that they “have quashed national income, and undermine efforts towards economic recovery and reconstruction.”
“No reference to good objectives of unilateral sanctions justifies the violation of fundamental human rights,” Douhan added.
While intended to punish Assad, U.S. sanctions have instead resulted in the collective punishment of innocent Syrians. With Syria’s already war-battered economy, they have compounded ordinary Syrians’ misery.
Ninety percent of the population currently lives in poverty and 12 million are food insecure. With more than half of Syria’s infrastructure destroyed or severely damaged by war, the sanctions have made reconstruction and economic recovery impossible by targeting key sectors like the Central Bank, oil, energy, and construction. They have also impacted the country’s already beleaguered health care sector by blocking medicine, medical equipment, and other necessities.
This was before the earthquakes.
The U.S. has implicitly admitted to the civilian suffering caused by its sanctions when it recently agreed to temporarily lift them for 180 days to allow transactions “related to earthquake relief efforts” in Syria. This is a welcome development, but only a short-term reprieve for the Syrian people from the sanctions’ far-reaching catastrophic impacts.
Sanctions: A Poor Substitute for Diplomacy
Policymakers and the media too often casually invoke sanctions as a solution to international conflicts and troublesome leaders, even though they are a blunt instrument. They are not designed to remedy a complex situation like in Syria that involves multiple international proxy conflicts with various state and non-state actors.
Narrowly-crafted sanctions that freeze the assets of Syrian officials and others responsible for heinous conduct, including potential war crimes, should be pursued and are largely uncontroversial in this debate. The real problem arises when sanctions indiscriminately target a nation’s economy. When imposed, the political leaders and elites are far better positioned to shield themselves from their most debilitating effects.
Thus far, U.S. and EU sanctions have not extracted major political concessions or led to Assad’s ouster, particularly with Russia’s continued backing. They have also not served as a successful mechanism for advancing Syrians’ human rights. Furthermore, with several states and rebel and jihadist groups entrenched in Syria with their competing geopolitical interests, sanctions remain an inappropriate tool for resolving 12 years of brutal war.
Among his options, President Biden can continue temporarily waiving provisions of the Caesar Act for humanitarian reasons until the legislation expires on December 20, 2024. But a new policy towards Syria would be more effective — one that includes permanently lifting these sanctions so that Syrians can breathe and rebuild from multiple crises with dignity.
Maintaining detrimental and counterproductive sanctions after over a decade of war and the latest earthquakes would contradict the Biden administration’s pledge to be “a partner to the people of Syria.”
In the end, sanctions are not a substitute for the much-needed, robust diplomacy that would broker a settlement to the war, an option which has yet to be fully pursued by all parties involved.
How much more do Syrians need to suffer before the international community unequivocally prioritizes peace?