In the wake of the devastating earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria on 6 February and after rescue and relief operations have faltered, especially in northern Syria, the Western and Arab countries have taken several steps to facilitate the flow of aid to Syria.
They have announced a freeze or suspension of some of the sanctions imposed on the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad for a period of time, giving the impression that the restrictions imposed on Syria by the West have started to erode and that the Arab rapprochement has started to turn into tangible action on the ground.
The US Treasury has decided to partially and temporarily suspend some measures it has imposed on the Syrian government. It will also allow the transfer of funds to Syria for six months if these pertain to sending assistance in the wake of the earthquake. It said that the US sanctions are not an obstacle to humanitarian aid, adding that the measures do not cover the sale of Syrian oil or apply to individuals under US sanctions.
The European Commission said it will act on calls for assistance from the Syrian government and will provide more emergency support to the country as well as urgent humanitarian aid. The EU has exempted humanitarian organisations from obtaining prior permission from member states to transfer or deliver supplies or services for humanitarian purposes in Syria. It said it will seek guarantees to ensure that aid reaches those in need.
The UK has taken similar steps to the EU to facilitate the flow of humanitarian relief to Syria, in order to facilitate the work of relief agencies without violating the sanctions that target the Syrian regime.
These steps suggest a new leniency by the West towards the Syrian government, but they are only temporary humanitarian measures that are not long-term. The declarations were accompanied by assurances that the sanctions by the West against the Syrian regime do not primarily target humanitarian aid, food, or medical supplies.
Any easing or suspension of the sanctions for these purposes will not violate the existing sanctions, which will continue to target the Syrian regime and its supporters, they said. Pressure will also continue to be put in order to progress on a political solution to the crisis in Syria.
The Syrian government described the decisions of the US and EU on the sanctions as “deceptive” and “a repeat of previous decisions giving a false humanitarian impression.” The US “cannot deceive the Syrian people by attempting to improve its image and shirk its responsibility for obstructing efforts to rescue and support the earthquake victims,” said a statement by the Syrian Foreign Ministry.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri visited Damascus earlier this week and met with President Al-Assad to deliver a message from President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi confirming that Egypt will continue its support for Syria in the aftermath of the earthquake. Shoukri also met with his Syrian counterpart Faisal Al-Miqdad.
During a news conference, Shoukri noted that the primary goal of his visit was humanitarian, and he declined to answer questions by journalists about possible normalisation by the Arab countries with the Syrian regime and Syria’s return to the Arab League.
“In this ordeal, we are motivated by our human bonds, and that is what we are currently focused on,” Shoukri said.
One day before Shoukri’s visit, a delegation from the Arab Parliamentary Union visited Syria and also met with Al-Assad. The delegation expressed its solidarity with the people of Syria, and one member spoke of the need for Syria to return to the Arab League 10 years after its membership was suspended.
A few days earlier, Al-Assad went on an official visit to Oman, the first of its kind in 12 years of the Arab boycott of the country. Nothing was said about the reasons for the visit and there were no announced outcomes, though it has been suggested that Oman is playing a mediating role.
Al-Assad has received a deluge of communications from Arab officials, however, and more than 250 relief flights have landed in Syrian airports, though nothing has been delivered to areas under opposition control. This has been the case even though the damage there is three times worse than in areas under regime control, with four times the number of victims.
The Syrian government has been under sanctions by the West for the past 12 years since the start of the Syrian Revolution in 2011. The EU and US have imposed various sanctions against Damascus, including a ban on selling oil, the restriction of investments, the freezing of the assets of the Syrian Central Bank, the restriction of imports of equipment and technology, and the monitoring of communications.
The sanctions affect any country that deals with the Syrian regime.
Other sanctions target hundreds of individuals affiliated with the regime and its security apparatus. In 2019, the US issued its Caesar Act that tightened the screws on the Syrian regime and its associates. Sanctions under the Caesar Act can be used against anyone dealing with the Syrian government or Russian and Iranian entities in Syria.
Despite the tragedy, the earthquake has been an opportunity for the regime to end its isolation, and the Syrian Foreign Ministry has urged UN member states, agencies, and other international organisations to give help in dealing with its aftermath. Syrian officials have called for the lifting of sanctions and taken advantage of the catastrophic conditions suffered by the Syrian people that have been compounded by the disaster.
The Syrian government has welcomed all Arab assistance, even though all responses so far have been limited to humanitarian relief aid and do not impact political or economic matters.
“The majority of the Syrian opposition believes that the sanctions against the Syrian government are primarily meant to punish the Al-Assad regime for its abuses of the Syrian people,” said Said Moqbel, a Syrian political analyst.
“It is a form of international pressure to force the regime to enter into a political process in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and a moral affirmation that justice will reach those affected by these sanctions.
“But some believe that the sanctions also impact the people, depriving them of any opportunity to escape from their dire living conditions. In order to avoid the sanctions impacting the humanitarian relief, some countries in the West have suspended some sanctions in order to enable Syrians to salvage what they can in the aftermath of the earthquake.”
Meanwhile, Europe and the US persist in their three “No’s” regarding normalising relations with the Syrian government until it takes steps towards a genuine political solution in accordance with the relevant UN resolutions. These are no to normalisation, no to the lifting of sanctions, and no to reconstruction.
There have been European attempts to improve interactions with the Syrian regime in the hope that this will change its behaviour, while some Arab countries are trying to buoy up the regime. These have been met with caution by other Arab countries because they precede any progress on the political track.
While the Arab moves are gaining momentum, they have not yielded any tangible results in political terms. The positions of influential Arab countries and the Arab League are clear and have not changed for a decade.
They want to see the scaling back of the regime’s relationship with Iran and the limitation of the Iranian influence in Syria. The regime should also move forward on a political solution based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254 as the key to Arab rapprochement.
Without these two requirements being met, it will be difficult for the Arab countries to have any tangible relations with Syria or invite it back into the Arab League. No Arab country is willing to ignore the US sanctions against Syria.
Only signs of moving forward on a political solution will convince the West to start easing the sanctions against the regime and allow the Arab countries to renew their ties with the Syrian government.