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Understanding the Role of Sanctions in the Syrian Conflict

Understanding the Role of Sanctions in the Syrian Conflict

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, foreign countries have imposed economic sanctions on the Syrian government, implementing what has been called “some of the most complicated and far reaching sanction regimes ever imposed.”  While the countries in question claim that such sanctions place targeted pressure on the Assad government and its allies to move towards a political solution and reduce human rights violations, the Syrian government claims that these sanctions have devastated the economy and led to immense human suffering. With so much conflicting information available, SJAC has compiled answers to some common questions regarding the current sanctions imposed against the Syrian government, the extent to which they can be used as a tool of human rights reform, and whether they are the cause of the dire humanitarian situation inside the country.

What are sanctions?

Economic sanctions are coercive measures through which one country imposes limitations on another country’s or its citizens’ access to financial services or trade in an attempt to influence policy. Sanctions can be imposed by the United Nations Security Council, or unilaterally by individual countries.

What countries are currently imposing sanctions on Syria?

The US, the European Union, Turkey, and the Arab League, among others, have imposed unilateral sanctions on Syria since the beginning of the conflict. Attempts to coordinate sanctions through the United Nations have been vetoed by Russia and China.

Why are these countries sanctioning Syria?

Countries imposing sanctions on Syria cite widespread violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law committed by the government. Such sanctions are used as a coercive tool to change the government’s behavior, and are targeted at specific individuals or entities deemed to be complicit in the government’s crimes. For example, last summer the US and France imposed sanctions on a list of individuals and entities deemed complicit in Syria’s chemical weapons program.

How have these sanctions affected Syrian civilians?

In the last two decades, the international community has shifted from broad sanctions, such as trade embargos, to targeted sanctions, which are imposed against a particular individual or entity. This shift was intended to ensure that civilians, and particularly their access to basic necessities, are not harmed. Despite the intent of such programs, the effects of sanctions, particularly ones as complex as those imposed on Syria, are hard to understand.

For example, current sanctions against Syria make clear exceptions for humanitarian aid, including food and medical equipment. However, such exceptions require organizations to obtain licenses to prove that they are compliant. The process of obtaining such a license can be complicated, particularly if multiple permissions are required from different countries, and it can be beyond the capacity of smaller organizations. Additionally, such sanctions can have a “chilling effect,” leading companies to withdraw from a country completely because they are afraid of running afoul of sanctions, even when their work does not actually cross a line. Such a withdrawal can effectively change civilian access to important goods, even those not targeted by sanctions. However, in the case of Syria, the burden of providing humanitarian aid has fallen on large, international organizations, which are adept at working around sanctions, and have been able to do so effectively. The largest impediment to the ability of these organizations to deliver aid has been the government’s efforts to divert or block aid shipments.

Are sanctions the cause for the recent gas crisis in government-held territory?

This winter, Syrians living in government held territory have experienced a devastating fuel shortage, limiting their access to gas for heating or cooking. The government has blamed these shortages on Western sanctions, and specifically on an advisory released by the US Treasury Department in November reaffirming its power to expand sanctions against entities complicit in importing oil to Syria. The US, EU and other countries responsible for sanctions in Syria have consistently denied such claims, instead arguing that it is the corruption and mismanagement of the Syrian government itself, combined with the devastating effects of the conflict, that have led to deprivation in the country.

The truth is probably somewhere in between. Before the conflict Syria produced the vast majority of its own oil, but it is now almost completely reliant on imports. The collapse of the oil industry was a direct result of the conflict. Additionally, this winter was particularly cold, raising demand for gas, and when paired with the wide spread economic effects of eight years of war, it is not surprising that civilians may face a gas shortage. These conditions have been exacerbated by widespread government corruption. For example, SJAC has documented incidences in which civilians waiting in line for gas are cut in line by military groups, who buy up the vast majority of the supply and then resell it at exorbitant prices, often at the same location as the original sale. So, while it is likely that the sanctions regime, against both the government and oil-producing Iran, is another factor in Syria’s gas crisis, the government has failed to assist Syrian civilians during the shortage, instead allowing corruption to run rampant.

Are sanctions an effective human rights tool?

Sanctions can be a powerful tool to coerce countries into changing policy. They can directly disrupt the ability of the government to wage war or commit crimes, and may serve as a powerful incentive for negotiators by leveraging the possibility of lifting sanctions and linking them to human rights benchmarks. As reconstruction efforts begin, sanctions against construction companies willing to work with the Syrian government, such as those against entities working on the Marota City development, could block some building projects and effectively protect private property. SJAC is supportive of targeted sanctions, particularly sanctions on reconstruction efforts, and believes they are an integral part of the international community’s response to government attempts to force demographic change and expropriate property.

However, sanctions ultimately have a limited reach. Strong sanctions against the Syrian government since the outset of the conflict (and in the case of the US, since before the conflict), have, till now, had little effect on government actions. Moreover, in some cases wealthy government allies in Syria have been able to dodge the most negative impacts of sanctions, such as when close government ally and cousin of the president, Rami Makhlouf, was able to maintain his Swiss bank account and relationship with a Panamanian law firm even after EU sanctions took effect. While sanctions can have a powerful impact, they must ultimately be understood as just one aspect of a larger diplomatic and accountability strategy.

For more information or to provide feedback, please contact SJAC at [email protected] and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.