In the aftermath of devastating earthquake, it’s time to reconsider long-term sanctions on Syria

For most Americans and Europeans, news of the earthquake in Turkey and Syria has involved tragic images of death, destruction, and total loss. For others, like myself, who were forced to leave loved ones behind in Aleppo during the Syrian Civil War, the tragedy has been personal, deeply heartbreaking. As my family and I hear directly from those affected just how severely resources are lacking, I see the struggle to provide rescue teams and the urgency to connect with humanitarian organizations. Those of us in the Syrian diaspora want to urge all sides to put aside all restrictions and make every effort to get relief to those devastated. 

The aid comes in an unusual context, with barriers across multiple borders, physical, political and legal. For one thing, the devastation centers around regions already vulnerable due to the war in Syria–in Syria itself and in areas of Turkey such as Gaziantep where millions of Syrian refugees have made home during the conflict. The Turkish region, moreover, is a major center for the Kurdish population, one with a historically fraught relationship with the often-oppressive Turkish government. Meanwhile, European and American relationships with Syria are practically non-existent, long framed by hostility toward the Assad regime. This political situation raises questions of a humanitarian nature. Most importantly, what are the responsibilities of states to ensure the flow of humanitarian relief? What must Turkey allow into Syria? What must Syria allow in? How can European and American agencies provide support? 

International humanitarian law, the law that applies during armed conflicts like the one in Syria, requires governments to respect medical and other forms of humanitarian aid. This protection is a corollary of the prohibition against starvation as well as the rule that the sick and wounded must be collected and cared for. The United Nations and other organizations have adopted resolutions invoking this rule. Syrian and Turkish authorities should fulfill their obligations to ensure that those suffering get the assistance they need, to whomever or wherever that may be.

If Turkey and Syria have obligations under international law to ensure access to humanitarian relief, European and American governments – both active in the Syria conflict for over a decade – have at the very least moral obligations, if not human rights obligations, to provide support either directly or through the permanent alleviation of sanctions policies that may stand in the way of swift assistance. 

The European Union and many of its member countries have sent search and rescue teams into Turkey and are working with its partners on the ground in Syria to provide humanitarian assistance. It is vital that humanitarian crossings are kept open, as the regime controls the only crossing into Northern Syria where more than four million Syrians reside. This includes the city of Aleppo and rebel-held provinces such as Idlib

The United States has stated its commitment to doing what it can on “both sides of the border,” finding a partner in Turkey’s government and the NGOs on the ground in Syria. Late in the week, the Treasury Department issued Syria General License 23, a six-month sanction exemption authorizing transactions related to earthquake relief efforts. This is a welcomed step in the right direction, but the United States and the EU should use this moment to rethink their sanctions policy and rapidly ramp up aid in a public and visible way. 

The direct involvement of European and American governments in the Syrian Civil War raises the question of whether implementing such sanctions is ethical to begin with. For many Syrian civilians, their homes destroyed by government and Western-funded shelling alike, the disastrous effects of war have been no different from those of a natural disaster like an earthquake. 

Yet, the electricity cuts, water crises, food shortages, and myriad other failings of infrastructure experienced by these civilians for over a decade have not been deemed a humanitarian crisis worthy of relieving international sanctions. Sanctions, if anything, have only served to magnify the situation, and have left civilians at the mercy of a mess of foreign and local powers forwarding the Syrian conflict while blocking any channels of relief from abroad. The necessary access to relief far surpasses six months, and if the United States is truly committed to the Syrian people as it has stated on numerous occasions, then it must reconsider its sanction policy. 

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Advocacy groups like the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and UN Human Rights experts have called on the United States to lift sanctions against Syria, finding that they “[perpetuate] and [exacerbate] the destruction and trauma suffered by ordinary citizens” since the Civil War began in 2011. A group of Christian churches in the Middle East have also called for an end against international sanctions to allow more efficient access to aid in Syria, warning that maintaining harsh sanctions in this crisis may constitute a crime against humanity. Social media users and members of the Syrian diaspora have started the campaign #StopSanctionsOnSyria or #SSOS to amplify this call. 

For members of the diaspora who have struggled to find ways to support Syrians over the course of the last decade, sanctions fail to meet any of their purported goals. While sanctions have undeniably pressured the Assad regime, it is questionable whether this outcome offsets the immense strain it has placed on Syrian civilians in a time of emergency. 

Accordingly, the United States must pay attention to the pleas of the Syrian people and either extend sanction exemptions beyond 180 days or end them altogether so that humanitarian workers can effectively fulfill their roles and render live-saving aid.

Judy Baladi, is a third-year student at UCI School of Law and was born and raised in Aleppo.

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