Post-Earthquake Syria Highlights Role of US Economic Sanctions / By W.T. Whitney Jr.

Syrian Arab Red Crescent demanded Western countries to lift sanctions on Syria to help with rescue and relief work, 02.0.23 | Photo: SANA

Suffering in Syria and Turkey caused by a strong earthquake on February 6 has elicited an immense worldwide humanitarian response. The toll three days later was 21,000 people dead, with the number of recorded deaths steadily rising as rubble from collapsed buildings is removed. Unusually cold weather and snow add to the grief and difficulties in delivering aid material to survivors.

Compounding matters is longstanding internal conflict in both counties aggravated by foreign interventions. The Turkish government contends with a Kurdish insurgency formerly active within its own borders and now based across the southern border in Iraq and Syria.  The Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad has confronted U.S. and European – supported rebel forces fighting in northern Syria since 2011.

The issue addressed here is of aggravation of humanitarian disaster through warlike interference in Syria’s affairs, particularly the role of economics sanctions employed by nations led by the U.S. government. Of concern is the U.S. government’s seeming disregard of human suffering and deaths as it wields the weapon of economic sanctions.

A civil war has raged in Syria for 11 years. The U.S. government in conjunction with allies supports elements of the anti-Assad resistance. They hold territory in northern Syria, where even U.S. troops are deployed.  The civil war has led to displaced populations of refugees, some living in government-controlled Syria,  3.6 others living precariously in Turkey, and 4.1 million more living in conflict-ridden northern Syria; they were dependent on humanitarian aid prior to the earthquake.  Kurdish rebels, anti-Assad rebels and radical Islamists control their own portions of that area.

The earthquake has caused more death and destruction in Turkey than in Syria. Turkey registered 17,674 deaths as of February 9 and Syria  3,377deaths, of which 2,030 occurred in rebel-held areas.  

The delivery of humanitarian aid material characteristically is difficult in situations of natural disaster. The Turkish government reports offers of assistance from 71 countries. Search and rescue teams and shipments of materials have arrived there from dozens of them.

Conditions in Syria are different. Western countries are contributing relatively little. Shipments of aid material have entered Syria from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Egypt, Algeria, United Arab Emirates and India. Rescue teams and aid shipments have been promised or have arrived from China, Iran, Russia, Cuba, and Algeria. Venezuela sent teams to both affected countries and were the first foreign rescuers to arrive in Northern Syria.

Barriers complicate matters in Syria. Only the Bab al-Hawa crossing of the Turkish-Syrian border remains open; three others are closed due to Russian and Chinese pressure in the United Nations Security Council. Those countries regard U.S.-supported rebels active in the region as “terrorists.”

The Assad government is requiring that aid for areas under its control enter through Damascus. Air shipments to Damascus have been hobbled due to runway damage left-over from an Israeli attack in January.

Economic sanctions against the Assad government, in force since 2011, pose the main difficulty for countries that would provide assistance to Syria. Governments worldwide have joined the United States, leader of the pack, in sanctioning the Syrian government. 

Speaking to the press on February 6, State Department spokesperson Ned Price insisted that, “We are determined to do what we can to address the humanitarian needs of the Syrian people.” He indicated that any U.S. humanitarian aid would be delivered exclusively to NGOs, the implication being that economic sanctions remain in effect. 

The head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent called upon the United States and its allies to “lift their siege and sanctions on Syria so that rescue and relief work can proceed unimpeded.” Speaking for China’s foreign ministry, Mao Ning likewise called for an end to sanctions, pointing out that U.S. “military strikes and harsh economic sanctions have caused huge civilian casualties,” while US troops have assured the “plunder  …[of] more than 80% of Syria’s oil production.”

A UN Special Rapporteur had already urged in November, 2022 that sanctions against Syria be ended on grounds of “destruction and trauma suffered by the Syrian people since 2011.”

On February 9, the U.S. government blinked. The Treasury Department provided authorization lasting for 180 days for “all transactions related to earthquake relief.” Other nations may follow suit.

The difficulty remains: an aggressive U.S. government is prone to trivializing claims that economic sanctions threaten human lives. Sanctions against Syria’s government revives the spectacle of sanctions aggravating humanitarian catastrophe from another cause.  That was Cuba’s situation in having to deal with both U.S. sanctions and the Covid pandemic.

The current situation in Syria calls for a critical look at the U.S. government’s frequent resort to economic sanctions as it wages what amounts to permanent war. Sanctions offer the advantage of impunity. An aggressor’s profile is lowered even as threats of ungovernability and human suffering mount.

A new multi-authored book titled “Sanctions: A Wrecking Ball in a Global Economy” offers reflections on these themes.  A look at a review allows one to reflect further about waging war by means of economic sanctions. The book, produced by  the International Action Center, is available here.   It seems that:

·        Those who suffer most from sanctions aimed a national economy are a society’s poorest citizens. 

·        Economic sanctions violate human rights, particularly the right of citizens to lead economically sustainable lives and their right to benefit from social programming that is determined collectively, notably healthcare, education, and social security for elders.

·        Although legal experts have identified criminal aspects of U.S. sanctions, even crimes against humanity, the upshot has been impunity for the U.S. government, in part due to U.S. disregard for the International Criminal Court.

·        Frequent use of economic sanctions represents one aspect of non-stop war-making on the part of the U.S. government and of nations following the U.S. lead. Sanctions are in the same category as the use of one’s own military forces, the use of proxy warriors and other agents, and internal subversion leading to destabilization and/or coups.   

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.