End sanctions on Syria — permanently 

Fatos Baruc, who lives in Germany and whose mother-in-law survived the earthquake, sits on a chair as she waits for her belongings to take away from a damaged building in Pazarcik, Turkey, Monday, Feb. 13, 2023. Thousands left homeless by a massive earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria a week ago packed into crowded tents or lined up in the streets for hot meals Monday, while the desperate search for anyone still alive likely entered its last hours. Photo by Francisco Seco/AP Photo.

Imagine if, in the course of one day, the place you’ve called home your entire life was reduced to rubble by a natural disaster. Imagine if clouds of dust and debris kept the location of your friends and family — and whether they are alive or not — a mystery for a week or longer. To many of us, this scenario is nearly inconceivable.  

Now, try to imagine that your neighbors and other volunteers risking their lives to engage in search and rescue operations are held back because they have neither access to the tools they need to dig people out from beneath layers of rubble, nor the ability to relocate people to new housing in brutal winter weather. The deficit of resources comes not from a lack of trying, but from the deliberate and unilateral — that is, one-sided — enforcement of economic sanctions prohibiting the direct delivery of humanitarian aid and nearly all trade with your country.  

This is reality for millions of people living in Northern Syria who, along with the people of Turkey, suffered a 7.8 magnitude earthquake followed by another 7.5 magnitude tremor Monday, Feb 6. The quakes flattened almost 25,000 buildings between the regions, according to Al Jazeera, as well as large swaths of transportation infrastructure, further complicating search and rescue efforts. No less devastating is the growing death toll of over 36,000 people, up from approximately 23,000 this Friday. In just one week, the death toll between Syria and Turkey has eclipsed the number of Ukrainian troops killed in nearly a year of fighting since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by a factor of nearly three — not to wrongly conflate the causes of the two.  

The impact of the dual earthquakes on Syria was exacerbated significantly by harsh sanctions imposed on the country by the United States. Economic sanctions, as defined by the U.S. Treasury Office of Financial Assets Control, involve the “blocking of assets and [imposing] trade restrictions to accomplish foreign policy and national security goals.” In other words, sanctions enable the United States to exert foreign influence over sovereign states by limiting their access to global trade and seizing assets held by their nationals. If this sounds to you like a kind of collective punishment, you’d be right: the U.S. sanctions regime is a fundamentally violent and undemocratic exercise of imperial power, even if it is not explicitly military, and it must be ended for the benefit of the Syrian people.  

Why are sanctions violent? The logic of it is pretty straightforward: Humans require basic necessities to live; if we have too few of these necessities, we die or our quality of life will fall dramatically. Thus, if some person or group purposefully blocks another’s access to these necessities, the former causes the death, impoverishment or starvation of the latter. You don’t need to pull a trigger or thrust a knife to commit an act of violence; starving someone or depriving them of their means of survival ends with the same outcome.  

This may sound like an oversimplification, but in reality, sanctions truly are that overwhelming. Between 1989 and 1999, the United Nations Security Council, under the guidance of the U.S. and U.K’s imperial pressure imposed a harsh economic and financial embargo on Iraq for the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by President Saddam Hussein. UNSC Resolution 661 established wide-reaching sanctions on the entire country, prohibiting any import, export, or other trade relations between Iraq and UN member states until it withdrew from Kuwait and complied with other demands. UNSCR 665 authorized the use of U.S. and other military naval powers to “halt all inward and outward maritime shipping” to and from Iraq and occupied Kuwait.  

The rapid arrest of nearly all global economic activity with Iraq led to shortages that caused the premature deaths of at least 227,000 children according to some sources, and as many as 500,000 according to others. It should be noted that the collective punishment of all Iraqis for an action authorized by Saddam Hussein is considered a violation of the Geneva Conventions defining war crimes, to which the U.S. is a signatory.  

Syria is in no less of a bind under EU and U.S. sanctions. Executive order 13582, signed in 2011 under the Obama administration to put pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, prohibits any transactions from U.S. persons to Syria, which ipso facto includes aid in the vast majority of the country, as well as interpersonal transactions to friends and family based in Syria. Furthermore, sanctions prevented much humanitarian aid and economic assistance from reaching Syria prior to the earthquake — where a decade of civil war demolished infrastructure and displaced more than 13 million Syrians — worsening the already desperate need to rebuild, not to mention the U.S’ direct role in bombing the country. Underdeveloped infrastructure as a result of the sanctions regime, particularly under Trump-era sanctions, is a critical piece of this equation.  

On Saturday, the U.S. Treasury announced that it would be temporarily lifting sanctions on Syria for 180 days in the aftermath of the earthquake. This is no admirable act on behalf of the U.S; with both Syria and Turkey facing years of reconstruction, anything short of fully lifting sanctions means the continued immiseration of the Syrian people and increased national instability.  


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