Years-old sanctions on the Bashar Assad regime are receiving new scrutiny amid efforts to speed delivery of humanitarian aid to the tens of thousands of Syrians injured or displaced by this month’s devastating earthquake.
But the debate in Washington, and in the Syrian diaspora community more broadly, on how best to serve the interests of the Syrian people after 12 years of disastrous civil war is highly fraught with differing views over whether it is possible to relax sanctions without financially and politically benefiting Assad.
The rebel-held northwestern part of Syria was hardest hit by the 7.8-magnitude earthquake on the Turkish-Syrian border on Feb. 6. Nearly 6,000 Syrians are estimated to have died in the quake, according to the United Nations, and tens of thousands more have been injured or displaced. Those numbers are on top of the estimated 4.1 million people in northwestern Syria who already relied on humanitarian assistance before the earthquake.
“I’m very concerned that tens of thousands of victims of this earthquake are not being appropriately supported in their response and recovery. USAID and the U.S. government, the Biden administration, has done a terrific job of responding promptly and thoroughly in southeastern Turkey,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who leads the Senate Appropriations foreign aid subcommittee. “The world community needs to work with us to facilitate better, broader responses to northwestern Syria.”
Several days after the earthquake, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control issued a new general license that authorizes, for six months, “all transactions related to earthquake relief that would be otherwise prohibited” by U.S. sanctions on the Assad regime. That Syria-specific license comes on top of a package of general licenses issued by Treasury in December, ones aimed at ensuring U.S. sanctions do not stymie the provision of humanitarian aid to the millions of people around the world living under foreign governments that have been blacklisted by Washington.
But some critics on Capitol Hill and in the Syrian diaspora community have criticized Treasury for wording the Syria license in a way they believe is too long and overly broad, potentially permitting what was meant as humanitarian aid to instead line the pockets of Assad and his circle of corrupt allies.
“The Biden administration’s decision to authorize direct transactions with the Assad regime in the name of humanitarian relief is a slap in the face to the Syrian people,” said Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and House Foreign Relations Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, in a joint statement last week. “This authorization for direct transactions with the Assad regime is not only unnecessary, it opens the door to the regime pilfering aid and will be abused to create a pathway for normalizing relations with the Assad regime. Additionally, this license certainly doesn’t need to last for six months, when other disaster relief licenses usually only last a few weeks.”
Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, policy chief for the Syrian American Council, a grassroots organization that wants to see a democratic and secular Syria, said Assad is exploiting the earthquake to demand the lifting of sanctions — some imposed by Congress — on his government even as it has done little to provide support for those in the northwestern part of the country.
“One thing he cared about and he went to work doing that and that was launching a well-coordinated campaign to have sanctions lifted on his regime and his cronies,” Ghanem said. “The main plan of the Assad regime has always been to achieve a military victory on the ground, rehabilitate itself … and get reconstruction funding into Syria.”
The Syrian American Council as part of a broader coalition of 10 Syrian American and Syria-focused faith-based and advocacy organizations issued a joint call last week not to relax sanctions on the Assad regime. Rather, the alliance called on American donors to direct their giving to frontline groups working in opposition-held northwestern Syria, such as the civil defense and rescue group The White Helmets.
“We thought that the general license was too vague, too broad, did not have a monitoring mechanism, did not provide clear definitions, [and] there were no guardrails,” Ghanem said. “This general license operates on the basis of the honor system. Everyone who knows anything about the Assad regime knows there is no honor [among] the thieves in Damascus.”
A Treasury Department spokesperson, who was not authorized to be named, said the Biden administration is prepared to revoke the Syria general license before it expires if it is “abused by the Assad regime.”
“Given the indifference of the Assad regime to date on the plight of those affected by the earthquake, we expect donors to proceed cautiously in response to solicitations directly from the Assad regime for monetary donations to the regime for earthquake relief support,” the spokesperson said. “All parties involved in transactions should continue to use appropriate due diligence to ensure compliance.”
The time-limited nature of the license does not permit long-term reconstruction projects in parts of Syria that are controlled by Assad, the spokesperson said. Among the activities that are allowed: building temporary shelters for the many Syrians left homeless by the earthquake; removing rubble from collapsed buildings; stabilizing damaged buildings; repairing roads and other critical infrastructure damaged in the earthquake; and rebuilding damaged hospitals, schools and shelters in earthquake-affected areas.
“I do not want this to lead to normalization with Assad or something like that. When you put one foot in front of the other, you always want to see where you’re gonna put it down,” Risch told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday, adding it was a “legitimate criticism” that some rebuilding activities in regime-controlled Syria might be able to take place under the Treasury license if they are earthquake-related.
Washington over the years has imposed sanctions on Damascus for a range of belligerent actions, including: human rights atrocities, the use of chemical weapons, interference in Lebanon, as well as support for terrorist groups.
Humanitarian aid on U.N. convoys has only recently begun to trickle into northwestern Syria through the Turkish border, much to the anger and frustration of the Syrian people in that part of the country.
The Biden administration, Risch, Coons and other lawmakers like Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., have called on Assad and his foreign backers, namely Russia, to allow more border crossings to be opened up to deliver humanitarian aid to affected Syrians.
“This is the result of having completely corrupt leadership in Syria. Nobody should look any further than Bashar al-Assad, his corrupt administration, the civil war that he caused if you’re looking as to who to blame for the unconscionable response to the earthquake,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, who leads the Senate Foreign Relations Middle East subcommittee.
Still, Murphy, D-Conn., indicated he wants to look anew at congressionally imposed sanctions on Assad to see if they need to be modified.
The 2019 Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, tucked into the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, required the sanctioning of any individuals providing services to the Assad regime, the country’s oil and gas industry, its military or construction and engineering services requested by the Syrian government.
“I’ve been asking questions for months about the impact of the Caesar sanctions. I think it’s time for us to have a broader discussion about the impact of the Caesar sanctions on the whole region,” Murphy said. “Those Caesar sanctions are delaying oil and gas from getting to Lebanon, hurting Jordan’s economy. There’s good reason for them but there’s also reason to step back [and review].”