EU considers exemptions to Syria sanctions following earthquake

Discussions of amendments prompted by Damascus claiming sanctions hamper aid

Machinery operates at the site of damaged buildings following an earthquake in the rebel-held town of Harem, Syria. Reuters
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The EU on Monday launched internal discussions over potentially alleviating its sanctions regime against Damascus, in a move described by officials and analysts as an attempt to counter accusations that the measures are depriving civilians of much needed support after a devastating earthquake killed more than 35,000 in Turkey and Syria.

There has been renewed media attention on the bloc’s sanctions against Syria after Damascus said that the punitive measures issued by the US and the EU — in large part over the Syrian civil war which began in 2011 — were blocking aid to its population.

On Friday, the US announced it would ease sanctions for six months.

Three EU diplomats told The National that ambassadors had discussed the sanctions against Syria on Monday but declined to give more details.

Syria-related sanctions have been enacted against hundreds of individuals. The sanctions also ban the import of oil and certain investments that could be used for internal repression.

The scope of EU sanctions remains limited in comparison to US sanctions, which can be applied around the world. Since the earthquake, EU officials have repeatedly said that sanctions do not hamper the delivery of humanitarian aid to Syria.

Peter Stano, the EU Commission's leading foreign affairs spokesman, said on Monday that the bloc could not be blamed for difficulties in channelling aid to Syria.

“Let’s not interchange the cause and the consequence,” said Mr Stano during a press briefing. “The fact that there are issues for international help to reach people in Syria who need it is the result of the conflict situation.”

The EU’s re-examination of its sanctions regime seems primarily to be a political message aimed at toning down criticism, said Jihad Yazigi, editor-in-chief of The Syria Report, an online economic bulletin on the Syrian economy.

“Unlike US sanctions, the EU doesn’t target the Syrian banking sector as a whole,” he said. “Their scope is extremely limited to certain sectors, including oil and luxury products, telecoms and weapons.”

Yazigi pointed to figures published by the UN Comtrade database, which show that in 2021, Syria continued to import close to $330,000 worth of goods, roughly 13 per cent of total imports, from European countries.

He said such figures undermine accusations from the Syrian government that western sanctions are killing its economy and health sector in particular.

“This whole sanctions argument is a huge exaggeration,” added Yazigi.

Meanwhile, US sanctions on the banking sector have encouraged overcompliance in the European banking sector, which generally prefers to avoid dealing with Syria altogether rather than risking legal action.

“It’s quite a complex situation — the US bans any dealing with the Syrian banking sector, the EU does not ban it but banks across the world are afraid of working with their Syrian counterparts, and rules among money transfer companies vary,” said Yazigi.

An EU official told The National that member countries may possibly re-examine a ban on material that is considered to be of “dual use”, meaning that it could be used both for clearing debris and reconstruction following the earthquake but could also be weaponised by the Syrian army against its civilian population.

The EU’s list of such equipment includes vehicles designed to remove barricades, including construction equipment with ballistic protection.

“Dual-use products are always tricky,” said Aron Lund, fellow at Century International. “The moment the Syrian army can import construction materials through a construction company, they obviously will.

“All armies own a lot of construction equipment because they need to move things out of the way all the time.”

Construction materials have so far not been requested either by Syria or the World Food Programme, which both activated the EU's civil protection mechanism following the earthquake. Their requests included items such as tents, sleeping bags and heaters.

Ten countries that are part of this mechanism have made offers. So far, only a handful of these offers, including one made by Austria, have been accepted by the WFP for north-west Syria. It remains unclear whether offers of help have been made directly to the Syrian government.

But help is “on the way” from EU stockpiles in Dubai and Italy, said Balazs Ujvari, EU Commission spokesman for humanitarian aid and crisis management. He did not clarify whether the aid had already crossed the border into Syria.

EU aid will be distributed by the International Federation of the Red Cross in government-controlled northern Syria and by the International Organisation for Migration in north-west Syria.

Access to north-west Syria has been particularly difficult because it is controlled by rebel groups classified as terrorists by the UN, including the group Hayat Tahrir Al Sham.

Due to a Russian veto, the UN Security Council has authorised only one border crossing for humanitarian assistance between Turkey and north-western Syria.

Of the 3,500 deaths so far reported in Syria, the bulk occurred in the north-west, in territory largely held by Hayat Tahrir Al Sham.

On Sunday, a source who was not authorised to talk to the media told Reuters the group would not allow shipments from government-held parts of Syria and that aid would be coming in from Turkey.

UN aid chief Martin Griffiths said the people of north-eastern Syria have been failed and “rightly feel abandoned”.

“The real issue is access,” said the EU official. “HTS doesn’t want people to go into some areas and the regime [in Damascus] allows international aid to go where it chooses, not where it is needed.”

Updated: February 14, 2023, 5:06 AM