Since America passed the Caesar Act which threatens sanctions on any third country that invests in Syria, countries have placed their plans to rebuild Syria on hold.
Half of Syria’s population was displaced in the war but those who somehow managed to stay at home or return are dealing with a gargantuan economic crisis.
Eight out of 10 Syrians live below the poverty line. The country is grappling with hyperinflation as the value of the currency has plummeted while prices of basic commodities have jumped.
A large number of Syrians in the regime-held territory are unable to adequately feed their children and because there is a fuel crisis, too, they are burning plastic or any other waste to keep their families warm.
Until 2008, Syria was exporting wheat to neighboring nations but a crippling drought followed by a protracted civil war turned the country into a grain importer. Bashar al-Assad’s regime relied on Russia to meet the shortfall but during the coronavirus pandemic, Russia reduced grain export, reportedly by half, to maintain a buffer at home. Moreover, Syria’s breadbasket in the northeast of the country is beyond the regime’s control and under the US’s Kurdish allies.
Last year, the bankrupt state reduced fuel subsidies and rationed bread. The government introduced smart cards that each family must swipe at the bakery to procure their limited quota of bread. A family of two could avail one pack, of four could get three. But larger families could not get more than four packets each and faced either starvation or spending more to purchase bread from the black market.
A notoriously corrupt government, as well as the mad bombing spree that was undertaken by the Syrian Arab Army against the rebels that destroyed not just homes but also infrastructure essential to grow crops and produce electricity, are widely blamed for the crisis.
The collapse of Lebanon’s economy also played a role in making Syrians poorer. Billions of dollars of Syrians’ savings are blocked in Lebanon’s banks and are subject to sizable haircuts and restructuring plans for Lebanon’s financial sector. The crisis in Lebanon also impacted the earnings of many of the 1.5 million Syrian refugees and in effect reduced the remittance flow into Syria.
But other than all of these factors Syrians’ ability to rebuild and restart their lives is largely affected by America’s sectoral sanctions imposed mid-last year.
Syrian people could resurrect their country with help from outside, at least those like Russia, China, India, the Gulf, and, its secret admirers in Europe who either didn’t mind the regime’s oppression of its people or didn’t make it a diplomatic issue. But since America passed the Caesar Act which threatens sanctions on any third country that invests in Syria, all these countries have placed their plans to rebuild Syria on hold.
American sanctions block countries from rebuilding civilian infrastructure, too, including power plants that are necessary for agriculture, industry and to improve the daily lives of the Syrian people. By imposing sanctions in the trade of oil, the US restricts Syria’s fuel supply which hurts the Syrian economy and the Syrian people as a whole. Fuel is needed by armoured tanks, but also by shopkeepers, tailors, factories, and farmers. It is needed by the Syrian people to commute and deliver goods.
Those who advocated sanctions said this was the West’s last leverage against Assad to force him to usher in political reforms and release political prisoners. They are pushing for strict adherence to UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
Others, however, said such expectations are unrealistic. Assad, already having won the military conflict in a large part of the country, is in no mood to concede on any demands that challenge his control. They say sanctions won’t achieve America’s goals of getting rid of Assad or expelling Iranians from Syrian soil.
In December, UN human rights expert Alena Douhan called on America to remove unilateral sanctions that are inhibiting the rebuilding of Syria’s civilian infrastructure.
“The sanctions violate the human rights of the Syrian people, whose country has been destroyed by almost 10 years of ongoing conflict,” said Douhan.
“When it announced the first sanctions under the Caesar Act in June 2020, the United States said it did not intend for them to harm the Syrian population. Yet enforcement of the Act may worsen the existing humanitarian crisis, depriving the Syrian people of the chance to rebuild their basic infrastructure,” she said. “What particularly alarms me is the way the Caesar Act runs roughshod over human rights, including the Syrian people’s rights to housing, health, and an adequate standard of living and development.”
The likes of the International Crisis Group have also long argued that the removal or waiver of sanctions must be attached to “concrete, realistic steps; clarifying the scope of permitted humanitarian exemptions; clearly defining “significant” construction services to avoid third party over-compliance, and flexibly implementing the law to address adverse humanitarian consequences as they emerge.”
Biden is expected to continue targeted sanctions in Syria. The only hope is that his team might lend an ear to experts who are offering a more humanitarian and nuanced approach.
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Anchal Vohra was a Fellow at ORF. She writes on contemporary developments in West Asia and on foreign policy.Read More +