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Increasingly punitive measures imposed on Syria by Western states since the onset of the war in 2011 are having damaging consequences for the population without forcing the regime to accept any sort of political reforms. Even so, the United States (US) and European Union (EU) have stepped up sanctions in recent months.
In November 2018, the US Treasury Department issued an advisory warning of the ‘significant sanctions risks’ for parties involved in shipping oil and gas to Syria. It also blacklisted several Russian and Iranian companies for doing so.
A few months later, in January 2019, the EU introduced new sanctions against several Syrian businessmen and companies operating inside the country, including tycoon Samer Foz, who was also recently added to the US blacklist.
This renewed sanctions package is aligned with the policy triggered by Western states in 2011, following the regime’s brutal crackdown on political and social protests and the country’s ensuing descent into civil war. Since 2011, Western sanctions have taken two forms, on the one hand targeting individuals and entities that are affiliated with the regime and, on the other, various economic sectors.
The EU imposed travel bans on and froze the assets of more than 120 individuals and 40 companies, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and most of his close relatives, the Central Bank of Syria and senior officials. It also banned imports of crude oil from Syria and trade in gold, precious metals and diamonds with Syrian public bodies and the Central Bank. The US imposed sanctions on the Syrian energy sector and froze all Syrian government assets.
Aside from the US and the EU, several other countries have unilaterally imposed sanctions on Syria, including Japan, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Norway, Turkey, and members of the Arab League, although the latter has implemented them unevenly. The Arab League continues to debate the reinstatement of Syria’s membership, which was suspended in 2011, but no consensus has been reached. Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is normalizing its relations with Syria. As reconstruction gets underway, some experts believe other countries may follow the UAE to assert an Arab presence in the region and counter Iran’s influence, although several factors – such as the amount of US pressure – will have to be considered.
Sanctions are not imposed by the United Nations, which means that Syria can, in theory, still deal with other countries. It can, thus, buy oil from Iran at market prices, but US sanctions on Iran are complicating this process. In early July 2019, the British Royal Marines and port authorities in Gibraltar detained a supertanker allegedly transporting around 2 million barrels of Iranian crude oil. While Europe does not endorse US sanctions on Iran, it cannot approve any shipment to Syria. As a result, the United Kingdom stated that the tanker would be released provided it did not go to Syria.
Prior to the war, Syria used to be an oil exporter. Today, the country relies on imports. The sanctions have pushed up fuel costs, resulting in higher prices in almost all sectors. In 2019 alone, the Syrian currency lost a third of its value.
In a policy brief from April 2014, Syrian economist Jihad Yazigi explained that before the conflict, the EU was the most important market for Syria’s crude oil, purchasing 90 per cent of all Syrian oil exports in 2010. The oil sector was also financially significant, representing 35 per cent of Syria’s export earnings and 20 per cent of government income. Consequently, the sanctions have led to a major drop in revenues. Furthermore, the blacklisting of various state entities has made international transactions considerably more difficult.
Although the sanctions exempt humanitarian goods, they have been strongly criticized by Idriss Jazairy, the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights, as impeding access to humanitarian aid for civilians. In September 2018, he described the punitive measures against Syria as the “most complicated and far-reaching sanction regimes ever imposed”. He also reported that the “complexity of the overlapping different sanction regimes” has been challenging for a wide range of actors who do not know how to comply with the measures, leading “banks, exporters, transportation companies, and insurance companies” to refuse to conduct business in Syria.
Inside the country itself, conditions are increasingly desperate. The UN estimates that 83 per cent of Syrians live below the poverty line. The widespread destruction is the main reason behind this figure, although Western sanctions are worsening the population’s plight.
Last winter, Syria experienced a critical fuel shortage, leading the government to ration gasoline and cooking gas. The ban on money transfers and other measures have particularly impacted access to medical and pharmaceutical supplies, many of which must be imported.
According to journalist Nour Samaha, sanctions have had almost no effect on the individuals they target, with the same political and business figures still dominating Syria’s landscape. As a case in point, she noted that in January 2019, a delegation of Syrian businessmen and officials visited the UAE to canvass investment in Syria’s private sector. The delegation was led by Mohammed Hamsho, who has been targeted by Western sanctions since 2011.
While former divisions among the Syrian population depended on control over geographical localities, they are now also separating those who live in the country and bear the brunt of international sanctions, and those who live in exile and support the sanctions as a way to maintain pressure on the regime. Although economic sanctions are akin to collective punishment, lifting them would effectively endorse the regime’s legitimacy.
Some experts argue that one option would be to abolish the measures that are harmful to the population, such as restrictions on oil supplies, and to facilitate the movement of goods, in particular humanitarian aid and spare parts for civil infrastructure. At the same time, sanctions against individuals and entities related to the regime would be kept and even expanded to the ‘mafia elite’ that has emerged from the war.
Furthermore, despite their negative effect on current account holders, sanctions would be maintained against the banking sector. Their repeal, the argument goes, would provide more opportunities for money laundering and the financing of militias as well as relinquish one of the last, albeit meager, levers the West retains in negotiations with the regime.