As the coronavirus pandemic continues to create unprecedented difficulties across the world, calls have mounted for economic sanctions to be lifted in response to pressing humanitarian and medical concerns. On March 26, eight countries, including Syria, Iran, Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, requested the lifting of sanctions imposed on them on the basis that such measures drastically reduce the ability of their respective governments to curb and contain the spread of the virus.
In Syria, to date, only 19 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed by the government, with two deaths. However, the nine-year conflict has badly damaged Syria’s health system, leaving only half the country’s hospitals and healthcare facilities fully operational, and the pandemic is expected to have a catastrophic impact on vulnerable communities and camps containing internally displaced persons especially.
The government’s troubling response to the pandemic almost certainly conceals the true extent of the virus already present in Syria. The Syrian government has issued a strict gag order forbidding medical personnel from discussing the coronavirus and instituted a media blackout, failing to provide the public with essential preventative information and instructions. The health ministry has not released numbers of how many tests it has performed, and the lack of transparency and public communication has consequently allowed dangerous rumors and misinformation to fester.
The government has taken a security approach to a public health crisis, using security forces to enforce a nighttime curfew and its closure of public institutions, schools, parks, and transportation. Civilians in opposition areas are at particular risk of the government’s securitized response to the pandemic, best exemplified by a recent statement from the Syrian Health Minister, who said that “The Syrian Arab Military has sanitized Syria from lots of viruses in Syria” in reference to those opposing the government. Clearly, serious issues with respect to the Syrian government’s response to COVID-19 must be addressed and resolved before any sanctions are suspended.
Lifting sanctions on Syria is fraught with risks, including facilitating the continued withholding of humanitarian aid and enabling widespread corruption, and in fact, offers little tangible benefit to the government’s ability to cope with and contain COVID-19. The international community should instead pursue a targeted response that aims to strike a balance between the sanction’s regime currently in place and new medical and humanitarian demands caused by the pandemic. The international community should respond to the request for sanctions relief by implementing the following four recommendations.
1. Reauthorize the Al Yarubiyah cross-border humanitarian aid mechanism from Iraq.
In December 2019, Assad allies Russia and China blocked two draft resolutions on extending the cross-border mechanism to deliver aid to Syria at the UN Security Council. The following month, the Council re-authorized only two of the four existing border crossings, Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa in Turkey, for a period of six months instead of twelve.
To facilitate the delivery of medical relief and humanitarian aid during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Al Yarubiyah border crossing from Iraq must be urgently re-authorized and re-opened. A draft resolution should be immediately tabled at the UN Security Council and diplomatic pressure will be necessary in order to successfully secure Russian and Chinese cooperation.
The reauthorization of the Al Yarubiyah border crossing is particularly important to COVID-19 efforts as it is an essential corollary to Northeast Syria, and can be used to supply medical aid without prior consent from Damascus. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), medical facilities in northeast Syria who depended on medical supplies via Al Yarubiyah have not received these supplies through alternative channels, and the cross-border corridor closures have resulted in significant shortages in medications and supplies in primary health centers in rural Raqqa and hospitals in Al Hol.
2. Clarify the humanitarian exemptions built into existing sanctions and offer assurances to key multinational corporations in health and medical sectors.
The U.S. has emphasized that its sanctions programs contain “carve-outs” for the export of food, medicine, and medical devices. However, exporters are often unable or unwilling to make use of humanitarian exemptions due to burdensome compliance requirements, uncertainty over the scope of the exemptions, and fear of inadvertently breaching sanctions in place.
To facilitate increased engagement among financial institutions and relevant exporters, the U.S. should issue clearer guidelines on existing humanitarian exemptions for Syria, offer assurances to companies operating within the health and medical sectors, and promote the use of the carve-outs for medical and humanitarian transactions. This strategy was used by the U.S. Treasury following the signing of the Iran deal, and successfully encouraged banks to work with the Iranian government on specific trade issues.
Congress could also consider widening the scope of the existing humanitarian exemptions, waiving any particularly burdensome compliance requirements in the short term. For example, as was recently pointed out in the Iranian context, medical devices like respirators – crucial to combating COVID-19 – require separate authorization from the U.S. government, a process that often takes months. Full procedural requirements should be suspended for specific medical devices and areas of humanitarian aid in high demand due to the pandemic so as to ensure the timely provision of fundamental resources.
3. Negotiate the development and implementation of a relief mechanism modeled after the Swiss-Iran channel.
The international community should develop and implement a mechanism for Syria modeled after the recently launched Swiss-Iran humanitarian trade channel. Despite a similar humanitarian exemption in U.S. sanctions on Iran, onerous compliance measures had largely deterred foreign banks from doing any business with Tehran. The mechanism, formally known as the Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement (SHTA), was created to encourage the provision of humanitarian aid, medical supplies, and basic necessities without risk of violating U.S. sanctions. The mechanism has successfully attracted dozens of companies and firms in the medical, pharmaceutical, and food sectors, and facilitated shipments of essential cancer and organ transplant drugs to Iran.
A similar mechanism should be created to respond to the increase in demand for critical humanitarian aid and medical relief in Syria during the pandemic. However, the creation of the channel should be subject to strict requirements obliging the Syrian government to allow the WHO full and unimpeded access to relevant data and information on the outbreak and agree to the monitoring of the mechanism through an independent monitoring mechanism so as to ensure full transparency regarding its use.
4. Call for the Syrian government to immediately take steps necessary to combating and containing COVID-19.
The Syrian government must urgently take several steps necessary to effectively combat and contain COVID-19. First, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has urged governments to reduce overcrowding in prisons by releasing prisoners in order to slow the transmission of the coronavirus. The Syrian government should take urgent action to release a sufficient number of detainees in order to prevent the spread of the virus and should further allow humanitarian actors and medical teams unhindered access to prisons and other places of detention in order to assess needs and provide relief.
Similarly, the spread of the virus can only be effectively contained if the WHO is granted full and unimpeded access to data and information about COVID-19 in Syria. The government must allow the WHO and medical relief organizations to operate transparently and implement monitoring mechanisms to gauge and respond to the pandemic. Finally, the Syrian government should urgently approve the sending of humanitarian aid via the UN and the WHO to Idlib and Northeast Syria so that those suffering from the virus can receive sufficient and timely medical attention. Taking these steps are fundamental to slowing the spread of COVID-19 throughout Syria and would evidence the government’s genuine concern about the outbreak and desire to fight it.
The above-noted recommendations are feasible, targeted options that ease obstacles to essential humanitarian aid and medical relief without increasing the risks associated with suspending or waiving sanctions. Implementing the above recommendations will effectively assist the Syrian government’s efforts to combat and contain the spread of COVID-19 while still prioritizing respect for human rights and ongoing justice and accountability efforts.