Western sanctions exemption on Syrian regime; political impact prevails over economic one

Loading German Red Cross aid to regime-held areas to help the earthquake victims in Syria - February 23, 2023 (drk)

Loading German Red Cross aid to regime-held areas to help the earthquake victims in Syria - February 23, 2023 (drk)


Enab Baladi – Muhammed Fansa

The United States, Britain, and the European Union issued a six-month sanctions exemption for all transactions related to providing disaster relief to Syria after earthquakes to facilitate humanitarian aid for those affected by the earthquake, which raises the question about its economic impact on the central bank’s treasury or the actual impact on the population.

The latest authorizations came from the European Union, on February 23, by issuing an amendment that allows humanitarian organizations to transfer or provide goods and services intended for humanitarian purposes to Syrian persons and entities on the EU sanctions lists without the need for prior permission from the competent national authorities in the member states.

The EU justified this step by facilitating the rapid delivery of humanitarian aid to Syria, given the seriousness of the humanitarian crisis, which was exacerbated by the earthquake.

On February 9, the United States issued a six-month sanctions exemption for all transactions related to providing disaster relief to Syria.

The license includes bank transfers through government banks to serve the earthquake relief efforts so that people working to provide relief to those affected by the earthquake can focus on their efforts, according to the US Treasury.

Britain said on February 15 that it was issuing two new licenses to make it easier for aid agencies helping earthquake relief efforts to operate in Syria without breaching sanctions aimed at the Syrian regime and its backers, according to Reuters.

The British government said the temporary new licenses would “strengthen the timely and effective delivery of relief efforts by removing the need for individual license applications.”

“UK sanctions do not target humanitarian aid, food, or medical supplies, but we recognize that the current requirements for individual licensing are not always practical during a crisis response,” Minister of State for International Development Andrew Mitchell said in a statement.

The licenses provide broad protection to organizations to allow them to operate by authorizing activities which would have otherwise been prohibited, Reuters reported.

“The devil’s in the details”

Since the beginning of the revolution in Syria, the United States of America and the European Union have imposed sanctions on the Syrian regime, its most prominent officials, and influential businessmen for their involvement in war crimes in Syria.

The two sides exclude humanitarian aid, medicine, and food from the sanctions, amid an ongoing debate that the sanctions harm the Syrian people more than those involved in war crimes and influential businessmen.

Mohammad al-Abdallah, Executive Director at Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC), said in a video recording on the center’s Facebook page that Western sanctions do not prevent the delivery of aid to those affected by the earthquake in Syria, but “the devil is in the details.”

The Syrian human rights defender divided the types of aid that may be sent to Syria into in-kind, on which sanctions have no effect, based on the in-kind aid that arrived from the first day from many countries to the airports under the control of the regime.

As for the other section, which is financial aid, it is exempted when the goal of its spending is humanitarian.

However, the sanctions imposed on the Central Bank of Syria (CBS) delayed the arrival of external money transfers from international or foreign relief organizations due to their review by the sending financial institutions and the scrutiny of proof of their arrival to unpunished destinations.

A “deterrent factor” resulted in banks and foreign transfer companies because of the large American fines imposed on violators, which made financial institutions refuse to send small amounts to Syria, even if they were exempt from sanctions, according to al-Abdallah.

The rights activist explained that the new US licenses facilitated financial transfers to Syria related to humanitarian aid, which benefits organizations with large financial transfers, but the “deterrence factor” will continue to prevent sending small amounts to Syria.

Western sanctions are called “unilateral sanctions” because the United Nations does not recognize or abide by them and can send and transfer money to Syria.

Greater political impact

Andrew J. Tabler of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy warned, in a brief analysis published on February 16, that Washington should take steps to ensure that the Treasury Department’s latest general license does not create new loopholes for the regime, its patrons in Moscow and Tehran, or its foreign terrorist partners.

Tabler said, “crucially, the West has ample leverage to change this situation. The United States, Britain, the European Union, and Canada currently provide around 91 percent of the humanitarian aid that flows into Syria ($2.16 billion of $2.38 billion annually). Washington should therefore take two immediate steps to alleviate suffering in earthquake-affected regions of northwest Syria.

“First, it should seek a Security Council resolution ensuring that the reopened crossings remain open for at least one year. 

Second, and far more complex, is the task of appropriately relaxing U.S. sanctions to support legitimate earthquake relief without fueling the regime’s longstanding campaign to evade responsibility for its numerous violations.”

The crux of the problem is that transactions with the “Government of Syria” cannot be sufficiently differentiated from the activities of sanctioned individuals and entities affiliated with the Assad regime and its networks, the Martin J. Gross Senior Fellow said.

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy recommended that the US administration conduct an intelligence assessment, using satellite images, about the devastation left by the earthquake to distinguish it from the devastation caused by the regime’s bombing in order to determine the places where the earthquake aid will be spent, and to what degree it is transferred to the regime’s reconstruction activities.

The senior researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Dr. Sinan Hatahet, believes that the exceptions issued have a greater political impact than the economic one.

The authorizations and exemptions constitute the establishment of a new reference that can be relied upon later in changing the nature of the regime’s relationship with the international community.

The regime is trying to exploit these licenses at the political level by reopening relations with countries and mobilizing support to re-float itself at the regional and international levels, according to the researcher.

On the economic level, money transfers through unlimited official or private channels, such as Western Union, can benefit the regime by entering the market with foreign exchange, but with a “temporary and unsustainable” effect, unable to improve the economic situation, according to Hatahet.

At the level of individuals, Hatahet said, these licenses will lead to a “temporary and limited” benefit in receiving remittances more easily, in parallel with the response of Syrian migrants or refugees abroad to send aid to their affected families in Syria.

Taking advantage of quake disaster continues

The earthquake catastrophe was accompanied by calls from activists on social media to lift the sanctions on the regime under the pretext that it stands as an obstacle to providing aid to the Syrian people.

This was reinforced by the statement of the regime’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which stated that the sanctions prevent the entry of heavy equipment and tools for removing rubble.

Washington confirmed at the time that lifting sanctions on the regime in these critical circumstances, in reference to the consequences of the earthquake, might lead to counterproductive results, according to what the US State Department spokesman, Ned Price, said during a press briefing on February 6.

After the United States issued the new licenses on sanctions, the regime’s campaign did not stop. Rather, its Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterated its demand to cancel them in response to the decision of the US Treasury Department, describing the decision as “misleading, and provides for a partial and temporary freeze of some unilateral and lethal coercive measures imposed on the Syrian people.”

In the same time, statements and electronic campaigns continued on social media from loyal activists calling for the cancellation of the sanctions, which were met with clarifications from the European Union and the US Treasury regarding the new licenses, noting that the sanctions would not affect humanitarian aid.



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