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How the West’s Economic Sanctions are Inflicting Suffering on Ordinary Syrians

The US and EU economic sanctions on Syria are causing huge suffering among ordinary Syrians and preventing the delivery of humanitarian aid, according to a leaked UN internal report. The embargo was supposed to target President Bashar al-Assad and contribute to his removal from power. Instead it is making it more difficult for foodstuffs, fuel and healthcare to reach the mass of the people.

Aid agencies cited in the report say they cannot procure basic medicines or medical equipment for hospitals because sanctions are preventing foreign commercial companies and banks having anything to do with Syria. A European doctor working in Syria says that “the indirect effect of sanctions… makes the import of medical instruments and other medical supplies immensely difficult, nearly impossible.”

The revelations in the internal UN assessment of the effect of sanctions on aid delivery, entitled Humanitarian Impact of Syria-Related Unilateral Restrictive Measures and leaked by the investigative publication The Intercept, open up the US and EU to the charge of hypocrisy, after criticising Syria and Russia for impeding the delivery of UN aid supplies to besieged cities in Syria.

The Intercept quotes an internal UN email from a senior official saying that sanctions have been a “principal factor” in degrading the Syrian health system and have contributed to a 300 per cent rise in the price of wheat flour and 650 per cent rise for rice, following a doubling of fuel prices in the last 18 months.

Syria was once largely self-sufficient in pharmaceuticals, but many plants were in the Aleppo area and have been destroyed or rendered unusable by the fighting. The email says that many of the plants that survived have now been forced to close because of the impact of sanctions on obtaining raw materials from abroad and the foreign currency to pay for them.

The report states that conflict in Syria is the greatest humanitarian crisis the world has seen since the Second World War with 13 million people, or two thirds of the population, in need of assistance. The disaster has led to the exodus of at least five million refugees and four million internally displaced people. The report says that the chaos has produced a weakening of the state and conditions that have fostered the growth of Isis.

US and EU sanctions are contributing to this humanitarian calamity while Mr Assad remains firmly in power. In many respects, the situation resembles that in Iraq between 1990 and 2003 when UN sanctions destroyed the Iraqi economy and helped dissolve its society while doing nothing to reduce the power of Saddam Hussein as Iraqi leader. Many critics of Iraqi sanctions argue that the mass impoverishment they produced contributed significantly to the political and sectarian breakdown after the invasion of 2003.

The same process is now taking place in Syria. The report says that “in totality, the US and EU sanctions in Syria are some of the most complicated and far-reaching sanctions regimes ever imposed.” It says that in parallel with the humanitarian crisis there is this complex network of non-UN sanctions targeting the government of Syria and some entities and individuals alleged to have contributed to violence and human rights abuses. The EU has imposed wide-ranging prohibitions on commercial and banking dealings with Syria as well control of the export of “dual use” items that might have some security application.

US sanctions are even more extensive, imposing a blanket ban on exports to Syria or financial dealings with the country. This includes foreign produced goods of which the US content is more than 10 per cent of the value of the finished item. There are supposedly means available for purely humanitarian goods to reach Syria, but in practice this is not the case.

The report quotes numerous examples of aid agencies in Syria which have found their work made very difficult or impossible by the Kafka-esque system of licenses, export controls, risk management assessments and other prohibitions that require expensive legal advice to navigate. For instance, the ban on “dual use” goods includes such items as drilling equipment and pipes used for water and sanitation which require a special license – even though a shortage of fresh drinking water is a major health hazard in Syria.

The big aid agencies are universal in their condemnation of the present system and the way in which it compounds the miseries caused by the war. None of the agencies are named in the report, but one large one from the EU complains that it has to apply for a license to send goods to Syria through national government bureaucracies, but officials there do not know what the criteria is for doing so. This means endless delays and many commercial companies and banks want to have nothing to do with Syria for fear of unwittingly breaching sanctions and opening themselves up to heavy fines.

These fears are not exaggerated. The report notes that “non-US banks have paid billions in US dollars in sanctions related penalties, mostly to US regulators.”

Staying within the law is also expensive. One aid agency said that the cost of legally sending laptops to their staff in Syria was greater than the laptops had cost in the first place. It is not just government-held parts of Syria that are affected. One major EU charity, partly funded by the EU itself, planned “to deliver humanitarian assistance to besieged areas inside Syria.” For this it needed to bring funds from the bank it usually used to another country near Syria but it did not not conceal the fact that the final destination was Syria. This turned out to be a mistake. The bank objected that it was at risk because of sanctions and other prohibitions. The charity concludes by saying that “the planned humanitarian assistance has still not been delivered.”

In effect, the US and EU sanctions are imposing an economic siege on Syria as a whole which may be killing more Syrians than die of illness and malnutrition in the sieges which EU and US leaders have described as war crimes. Over half the country’s public hospitals have been damaged or destroyed. Syrian doctors in Damascus complained to The Independent about the difficulty in obtaining medicines and spare parts for medical equipment purchased before the war.

In other parts of Syria the health situation is far worse. The report says that “British doctors working in Aleppo have indicated that over 80 per cent of those requiring urgent medical treatment die as a result of their injuries, or lack of basic care, medicine and equipment.”

Nevertheless, the World Health Organisation says that brand name US medicines “cannot be procured due to the embargo situation.” In general, living conditions have fallen disastrously with electricity supply about ‘three hours on three hours off’ in the capital.

Maintenance and spare parts for the electricity system have both been hit by sanctions. There private generators but the report says that power has “become too expensive for most Syrians, and many live without electricity.”

As Syrians sit in the dark, US and EU sanctions are combining with war to destroy their country.

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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