Syria: The Case Against Economic Sanctions

The dire humanitarian situation in Syria is likely to only intensify as a new series of U.S. sanctions take effect. Recent legislation enacted by the United States, known as the Caesar Act, will impose the most severe and far-reaching economic sanctions on the war-torn country to date.  The sanctions aim to put an end to human rights abuses implemented by the Assad government, targeting both the regime itself and any individual who undertakes business with the regime. However, the reality is that the imposition of this new series of economic sanctions may fail to have any real impact on the Syrian government. Instead, it is likely to be ordinary Syrian civilians who will be hurt by these sanctions, rendering them inhumane.

The Caesar Act

The United States has had economic sanctions imposed on Syria dating back to 1979 and they have only multiplied with the breakout of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. However, the sanctions imposed under the Caesar Civilian Protection Act are drastically stricter and more far-reaching than any seen previously. The legislation came into force on the 17th of June and the sanctions can apply to both Syrians and non-Syrians. Under the Caesar Act, anyone who supports or undertakes business with the Assad regime will be placed under “secondary sanctions.” This is, therefore, a significant development in the scope of sanctions on Syria, as previous sanctions were generally limited to selected actors.

The United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, highlighted that: “Anyone doing business with the Assad regime, no matter where in the world they are, is potentially exposed to travel restrictions and financial sanctions.” He further described the new series of sanctions as “the beginning of what will be a sustained campaign of economic and political pressure to deny the Assad regime revenue and support it uses to wage war and commit mass atrocities against the Syrian people.”

Economic Sanctions: An Inhumane Tool?

It has been argued that U.S. sanctions on Syria can be justified, as they provide American policy-makers with a means of leverage to hold the Assad regime accountable. However, the reality is that the sanctions pose a well-founded risk to severely exacerbate the suffering of the Syrian population, likely whilst failing to have any real impact on the regime. The Syrian economy is likely to become further devastated under new economic sanctions, which will greatly hurt ordinary Syrian civilians.

As a result of ten years of civil war, the Syrian economy has been devastated and is set to be further ravaged with the implementation of new economic sanctions. A prominent manifestation of the economy’s devastation is the plummet in the value of the Syrian pound. According to The New Humanitarian, the value of the Syrian pound has decreased by over 50% since May and has seen an even more significant decline in recent weeks. Syrian state media has contributed the recent plummet of the Syrian pound to the Caesar Sanctions. Consequently, many shops and pharmacies have had to close their doors due to this continuous decline, according to local Syrian media. The sanctions have already had a prominent financial impact on the Syrian economy and the situation will only continue to deteriorate.

Other factors linked to the Caesar Sanctions have compounded the drastic hit to the Syrian economy. Since the sanctions threaten to punish anyone who engages in business with the Syrian regime, War On The Rocks highlighted that this will have the effect of deterring foreign investors from conducting even “benign economic activity in the Syrian market.” Additionally, the ongoing economic crisis in bordering Lebanon has effectively eradicated the Syrian economy’s major link to the outside world. The Syrian economy has thus been plunged into further turmoil which will only continue to be compounded by the Caesar Sanctions. This poses a huge risk to exacerbate the already dire humanitarian situation in Syria.

Impact on the Syrian Population

Actors such as United Nations representatives and Western humanitarian organizations have argued that economic sanctions are both ineffective and inhumane. This reflects the reality that ordinary Syrian civilians are likely to be the ones who will be hurt the most by these latest sanctions. A source at the Syrian Foreign Ministry told SANA, a Syrian State News Agency, that the latest sanctions were a violation of international law. They also accused U.S. officials of acting like a “gang.”  Additionally, there have been widespread doubts that the sanctions will achieve their goal of having any real impact on the Assad regime. Concerning this, an individual from Damascus told War On The Rocks that: “Sanctions will help prevent Syria from achieving any form of recovery. In the meantime, those insiders who have been sanctioned are only getting wealthier.”

Due to the ravaged state of the Syrian economy, ordinary Syrian civilians are being hit hard, with extreme poverty and hunger increasing greatly. The dire humanitarian situation was encapsulated by a Syrian woman who told War On The Rocks: “We couldn’t buy apples last season. People don’t remember the taste of meat.” The plummet in the value of the Syrian pound has caused prices of everyday items to skyrocket, rendering essential items such as food and medicine out of reach for the ordinary Syrian civilian. For example, according to The New Humanitarian, the price of a regular basket of food has increased 111% in a year. As a result, poverty and levels of food insecurity in Syria are set to only continue to intensify as the effect of the Caesar Sanctions set in.

A large impact on civilians has been a consistent trend of U.S. sanctions, strengthening the argument that they are not a humane means of applying political pressure, nor a humane alternative to traditional military action. For example, according to the Boston Review, it has been estimated that the deaths of over half a million children in Iraq in the 1990s were linked to the U.S sanctions that were imposed. As such, one thing is clear in regard to the imposition of the Caesar Sanctions in Syria- ordinary Syrian civilians will suffer. It is therefore largely inhumane for the United States to impose these sanctions, especially in the midst of a global pandemic.

Going Forward: It’s Time to Rethink Sanctions

There is little historical precedent to suggest that U.S. sanctions will succeed in having any real impact on the Assad regime. However, there is an extensive precedent that they will exacerbate the suffering of Syrian civilians, the very individuals that the sanctions have the pretext of protecting. As a result, it is imperative that the United States rethinks its approach to the Syrian conflict and ceases to utilize economic sanctions as a tool of first resort, due to their inevitable negative impact on Syria’s humanitarian situation. Instead, the application of economic sanctions should be reserved as a tool of absolute last resort, if any, which is not the way the U.S. currently perceives them.

The reality is that the impact of economic sanctions is much more brutal than one may first assume. As such, they cannot be perceived as a humane alternative to military action- in many cases, they even pose a greater risk to civilians. Instead of continuing to pile economic sanctions on the Syrian regime, it has been suggested that the United States should reframe its foreign policy approach to one that is centred around “international solidarity,” in the words of Asli U. Bali and Aziz Rana for the Boston Review.

The Syrian Civil War cannot be solved without a political solution between parties to the conflict, which severe sanctions are unlikely to facilitate. The U.S. should instead direct its focus to broker peace talks between parties and encouraging ceasefires. If the nation truly wishes to protect the Syrian population as its discourse suggests, it is time for its foreign policy actions to reflect this.

Lauryn Sinclair


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