Divisions grow over US sanctions exemption for Syria after earthquake

Washington announces 180-day sanctions exemption for disaster aid, days after quake

Syrians build a temporary camp to house families made homeless by the earthquake in Harim in Syria's north-western Idlib province on the border with Turkey. AFP
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As Syrians continue to comb through the rubble from last week's earthquake with little international support, Washington's decision to temporarily ease sanctions against Damascus has been met with mixed reactions.

The US Treasury Department issued a general licence on Thursday authorising all transactions related to the earthquake response for 180 days. The move was met with confusion by some and celebration by others.

Among those in favour was the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which said existing sanctions “impose obstacles that make it difficult for aid and disaster relief to reach many of those directly impacted”.

“The notion that sanctions don't impact humanitarian aid is naive,” Abed Ayoub, the committee's executive director, told The National.

“In fact, historically, sanctions have hurt the people of the country the most, whether you look at Iraq, Cuba … sanctions impact people the most. And that's the bigger picture.”

But some Syria experts assert there is “no relationship” between western sanctions against the regime of President Bashar Al Assad and delivery of humanitarian aid.

Charles Lister, a senior fellow and director of the Syria and Countering Terrorism and Extremism programmes at the Middle East Institute, said billions of dollars in aid was delivered to regime-held areas each year through the UN, 91 per cent of which is funded by the US, EU, UK and Canada.

“To suggest that the West is somehow complicit in blocking humanitarian aid to regime regions of Syria is patently absurd, runs contrary to the most basic facts and is a regime talking point, nothing else,” Mr Lister told The National.

After last week's 7.8-magnitude earthquake and its aftershocks, the Assad regime quickly made an emergency statement at the UN.

Its UN ambassador, Bassam Al Sabbagh, announced Syria would accept aid from any country and co-ordinate assistance to all areas of control, but it would not agree to more cross-border access from Turkey into areas not held by the government.

The UN has failed several times to approve more cross-border assistance for opposition-held north-west Syria, with Damascus ally Russia routinely vetoing Security Council efforts to expand access points.

This has arguably been the biggest hurdle keeping aid from reaching the area, and not the sanctions on the Assad regime.

Steven Heydemann, a non-resident senior fellow in the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said that there had been “almost no” cross-line aid from regime-held areas into contested regions in war-torn Syria.

“Corruption is so pervasive [in regime-held areas] that even the humanitarian aid that is being delivered, we can't really have much confidence in the ways it's being used or whether it's reaching the right people,” Mr Heydemann said.

Organisations such as the Syrian Emergency Task Force, which sponsors women's centres and schools in Syria's north-west, were disappointed by the US sanctions exemptions.

“Anyone who is asking for the sanctions on a war criminal to be lifted has absolutely no idea what they are talking about,” the organisation's executive director, Mouaz Mustafa, told The National.

“Not only does this feed into the pro-Assad narrative, we already have licences authorising humanitarian aid, so why was this necessary?

"At best it's redundant, at worst it's going to open the floodgates with some corrupt transactions with Assad.”

But US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed that any humanitarian assistance would not benefit Damascus.

“These funds go to the Syrian people, not the regime,” he tweeted.

As time runs out to rescue earthquake victims in north-western Syria, Mr Heydemann said the question of aid will move to “whether assistance will be provided to begin to permit people to rebuild their lives”.

“That's going to produce a change in the political context as well," he said.

"We'll see backlash in northern Syria against the failure of international actors to recognise the severity of this crisis, put political considerations aside and just get things into the hands of people who need them."

Updated: February 13, 2023, 10:08 PM