Middle East religious and humanitarian leaders push Biden to end 'collective punishment' of Syria sanctions

Regional VIPs say US measures scare off aid groups and developers from rebuilding the country

FILE PHOTO: Women walk through al-Hol displacement camp in Hasaka governorate, Syria April 1, 2019. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho/File Photo
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Dozens of religious, political and humanitarian leaders have signed a letter calling on US President Joe Biden to lift economic sanctions on Syria, saying they “severely harm” civilians in the war-ravaged country.

A letter signed by the leaders of Syrian churches and religious and humanitarian groups urged the new administration to “lift its complex web of economic sanctions that severely harm the people of Syria”.

Sanctions scare off aid groups and developers from work that would benefit ordinary Syrians, making them a "collective punishment of the civilian population" that are "driving Syria into an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe", it says.

“Millions of hard-pressed Syrians will go to bed hungry and cold tonight. Unilateral coercive measures imposed by the US make the economic plight of the Syrian people worse,” says the letter, which is dated January 21.

“We urge you … to help Syrians to alleviate a humanitarian crisis that threatens to trigger a new wave of instability in the Middle East and beyond."

It calls for recommendations from UN experts to be implemented.

The letter was signed by Michel Abs, secretary general of the Middle East Council of Churches, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Youssef Absi and other leaders of churches in Syria and across the region.

Other signatures came from John Eibner, chief executive of Christian Solidarity International, former Tunisian ambassador to Unesco Mezri Haddad, former archbishop of Canterbury George Carey and Makram Khoury-Machool, director of Cambridge University’s centre for extremism.

The White House did not reply to The National's request for comment.

A White House directive on Thursday called for a governmentwide review of all US sanctions to see if they are “unduly hindering responses to the Covid-19 pandemic” overseas.

Also, the page on the US State Department website on the Caesar Act – which significantly raised the business risk of linking up with the Syrian regime and its associates – has been archived.

The letter refers to the work of Alena Douhan, a UN expert on unilateral sanctions, who last year criticised the administration of former president Donald Trump for imposing too broad a range of sanctions on Syria.

Sanctions deter aid groups from rebuilding bombed-out schools, homes and hospitals in Syria, make it harder for doctors to import CT scanners and other medical equipment, and even prevent them from using remote working technologies like Zoom, Ms Douhan told The National.

The US slapped sanctions on the government of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in 2011 but significantly ramped these up in June 2020 under the Caesar Act, which was passed by Congress the previous year.

Using the code name of a prominent regime defector, the act aimed to choke off revenue for Mr Al Assad’s government, in a bid to force it back into UN-led negotiations and broker an end to the country’s decade-long war.

Advocates of the Caesar Act, including Syrian anti-war campaigners, say it targets regime bigwigs and their backers in Russia, Iran and beyond with travel bans and asset freezes, while letting aid flow to those in need.

So far, the US has placed sanctions on more than 110 people and entities under the act. In December, Washington put more sanctions on Syrian first lady Asma Al Assad and her family members based in the UK, as well as several Syrian shipping, construction, plastic and freight companies.

Millions of people have left Syria and millions more have fled their homes since a crackdown by the government on protesters in 2011 led to a multi-front civil war that has dragged in Russia, Iran, Turkey, the US and others.