US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes


As many of us would agree, the continuing conflict in Syria has created a devastating humanitarian crisis: the magnitude of humanitarian needs is overwhelming in all parts of the country and affects the region and beyond. The Syrian conflict has become the world’s largest humanitarian crisis since World War II, the estimated number of people in need of the protection of International Humanitarian Law is approximately 14 million, more than two-thirds of Syria’s pre-war population. Of these, more than 6 million are hard to reach 16 besieged, areas, and over 7 million people are internally displaced. António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, recently described the humanitarian situation in Syria as “the great tragedy of this century”. It continues to fuel a combustible environment, which has contributed to the refugee and migration crisis as well as to the rise of evermore anti-government rebels groups including extremists affiliated with, if not directly a part of, the so-called Islamic State (IS) and Fatah al-Sham.

At an emergency session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Friday, human rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein warned that “crimes of historic proportions” were being committed in the east of the city and elsewhere in Syria.

“The ancient city of Aleppo, a place of millennial civility and beauty, is today a slaughterhouse – a gruesome locus of pain and fear, where the lifeless bodies of small children are trapped under streets of rubble and pregnant women deliberately bombed,” he said.

Bombing Besieged Civilians: War Crimes

The Russian bombardment of Aleppo has continued unabated and reached an acme on October 17 with 14 members of one family reportedly killed in an airstrike on al-Marjeh area of Aleppo according to eyewitness accounts, including White Helmet rescue workers. A list of those killed included several infants, among them two six-week-old babies and six other children aged eight or under. Rescue workers, who like the local population have become expert at identifying aircraft and bombs, claimed the attack used “bunker-buster” munitions that shook the ground for a half kilometer, as well as cluster bombs.” The medical aid providers, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), have reported that at least 114 children have been killed and 321 injured in the last three weeks of violence, as primarily Iranian-supported Shia militias backed by Russian warplanes, seek to destroy what little resistance remains in east Aleppo.

Against the backdrop of growing calls for western intervention to stop the slaughter, a furious US Secretary of State John Kerry announced last weekend that “Crimes against humanity are taking place on a daily basis. Hospitals are targeted and children are bombed or gassed.” The UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson and some EU foreign ministers echoed Kerry. This, while Russia has come under increasing criticism from Western nations for its attacks on rebel-held east Aleppo, with the US and several prominent political figures accusing Moscow of war crimes. The EU Foreign Affairs Council published findings on 10/17/2016 that concluded the bombing of Aleppo may amount to war crimes: “The deliberate targeting of hospitals, medical personnel, schools and essential infrastructure, as well as the use of barrel bombs, cluster bombs, and chemical weapons, constitute a catastrophic escalation of the conflict and may amount to war crimes.”

Most objective analysts agree, it is unlikely there will be any forceful or effective UN or international, even regional, resistance to the slaughter happening daily in Aleppo. There is some, but not much, appetite in Washington for European capitals to enforce a ‘no-fly zone’ which entails risks of war with Russia. Despite some campaign rhetoric, presumed next U.S. President, Hilary Clinton will face resistance from the Pentagon and Congress in the unlikely event that she opts for war, as she stated the other day, “Enough is enough of war crimes in Syria!”

The Double-Edged Sword of Sanctions

So what are the realistic options for the US-led coalition and much of the global community committed to protecting the civilian population of Syria? Frankly there are almost none. But one that will be employed are more US-led sanctions against Syria and possibly even Russia. Some EU countries want to add another 20 names from Syria to a current sanctions list blocking their banking activities and imposing travel bans. EU foreign policy Chief Federica Mogherini mentioned a couple of days ago that there was a chance that ministers would agree to put more Syrians on the EU’s list of people blocked from traveling to Europe or accessing money there. These additional sanctions will likely deter no one. Those who may be affected have likely long ago employed other means five years ago to protect their assets.

Yet, despite EU divisions (Germany, Hungary, Austria Greece, Cyprus and others objecting) among the 28 EU members, whose unanimity of votes is required to impose more sanctions, on 10/17/2016 the Obama administration and the European Union expressed the view that new efforts at tightening the sanctions against Syria and Russia for countless war crimes may have some positive effects.

In my view, it is unlikely that serious new sanctions will be agreed upon by the EU which already has extensive sanctions in place against Syria, including oil and arms embargoes, plus restrictions on more than 200 individuals and 70 entities. With little result. On October 17, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told colleagues following a meeting in Lausanne, “At present, I don’t see how sanctions with a possible long-term effect are supposed to contribute to improving supplies to the civilian population”.

Meanwhile, the slaughter of civilians continues. Few objective observers deny that massive war crimes continue to be committed in Syria although there is plenty of hysterical debate over who the perpetrators are and who are defeating “terrorists” as opposed to creating more “terrorists” with every bombing.

Historically, economic sanctions have had mixed results. Between 1914 and 2016, various countries imposed economic sanctions in 125 cases. They failed to achieve their stated objectives in 66 percent of those cases and were marginally successful in the other one-third. Since 1973, the success ratio for economic sanctions has fallen to 24 percent according to scholars researching their effectiveness. Some might argue that one-quarter success rate is not so bad when one considers that sanctions are politically cheap, do not require military action, while skeptics who increasingly oppose armed interventions are more accepting of economic sanctions which show that “we are doing something!” to oppose perceived foreign oppression and brutality. Sanctions also are more acceptable among UN members as they suggest “international governance.” They are seen as more “meaty” than mere diplomatic protests, hence carry less political baggage. They are often viewed as a sort of mild punishment, short of being aggression of the kind that might portend human costs.

For these reasons sanctions have largely escaped the scrutiny of International Humanitarian Law that military actions increasingly face. But the reality is that in Syria (as in Iran and Iraq) US-led sanctions are causing extensive civilian damage, because the suffering has been borne primarily by women, children, the elderly, the sick, and the poor. The targeted political and military leadership are largely exempt from their effects.

A serious and growing legal problem with respect to the US-led sanctions in Syria is that they target mainly civilians protected by the Geneva Conventions, so they are increasingly running amok and afoul of International Humanitarian Law. There is little doubt that the new US-led sanctions will increase quality of life pressure on most who still remain in Syria. They may also result in war crimes punishable before a Special Tribunal for Syria with universal jurisdiction, which is virtually certain to be established.

While economic sanctions are rapidly becoming one of the major tools of international governance of the post-Cold War era, I would argue that economic sanctions, like a siege, intend harm to civilians and therefore cannot be justified as a tool of warfare. The history of US-led sanctions demonstrates that they are not a device that keeps the peace and enforces international law. Rather, they are they intrinsically a form of violence, which in fact violate International Humanitarian Law as their effects target non-combatant civilians.

Like siege warfare, US-led sanctions targeting Syria are the face of economic strangulation. History teaches that the claimed targets – the military and political leaderships -, will easily insulate themselves from its consequences, and place a disproportionate burden on the civilian population. History also teaches that economic sanctions will consolidate the state’s power rather than undermine it and economic sanctions are unlikely to stop military aggression, or stop human rights violations, or achieve compliance with any political or military demand, even when sanctions drag on for decades. The history of US-led sanctions has been that they harm the most vulnerable and the least political; and that this is something which the US government and its allies such as the sanction-imposing EU know. To the extent that economic sanctions seek to undermine the economy of a society, and thereby prevent the production or importation of necessities, they are functioning as the modern equivalent of siege and are war crimes. To the extent that sanctions deprive the most vulnerable and least political sectors of society of the food, drinkable water, medical care, and fuel necessary for survival and basic human needs, sanctions should be subject to the same international humanitarian legal standard as siege warfare and judged to be war crimes. US-led sanctions targeting Syria are imposing an economic siege which is contributing to the killing of more Syrians than those who have died and die of illness and malnutrition in sieges, such as in Aleppo, which EU and US leaders have described as war crimes.

Those who travel in Syria these days constantly observe countless examples of how these sanctions have devastated civilian lives. Rampant inflation with skyrocketing costs for nearly every consumer food and quality of life items. Today, a major worry is the availability of and affordability of fuel heating oil as winter draws near. The US-led sanctions are also blocking Syrians from the immediate civilian need to repair electricity infrastructure, health care facilities, access to fuel, the transport network and wider reconstruction. Moreover, it is unlikely that on a specific day Syria as a whole will move from war to peace. Consequently, the sanctions’ ecosystem will need to demonstrate a much greater degree of responsiveness in how it responds to the Syrian crises. Unless addressed now, the impact of sanctions will last well after the sanctions are either removed or modified, and may create a new catastrophe in terms of crippling economic and humanitarian effects and war crimes to be judged.

The United Nations and International NGOs working in Syria are also expert on the effects on US-led, civilian-targeting sanctions. A recently leaked report from The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Syria,(UNOCHA), entitled Humanitarian Impact of Syria-Related Unilateral Restrictive Measures (aka US-led Sanctions)  constitutes a strong indictment of the effects of US and EU sanctions on the civilian population of Syria. Aid agencies cited in the report complain, for example, that they cannot procure basic medicines or medical equipment for hospitals because sanctions are preventing foreign commercial companies and banks from any dealings with Syria.

According to the UNOCHA study, the US-led sanctions are blocking international banking channels for those seeking to help desperate civilians secure unsanctioned humanitarian aid such as medicine and food. They block the ability to make straight-line, direct bank-to-bank payments via the global correspondent bank network into Syria. This means that humanitarian and development funds are increasingly being transmitted via iffy remittance and informal payment channels that are not as reliable and encounter risks. Private sector entities (particularly banks and exporters) are reluctant to support humanitarian aid deliveries to Syrians in need due to the chilling effects of OFAC severe penalties. Additionally, the license application process for humanitarian support, beyond the allowable food and certain medicine, overly inhibits the delivery of humanitarian aid, as the licensing framework is lengthy, difficult to navigate and ill-prepared to respond to the needs of humanitarian actors and their related programs. The UN complains that the provision of available general licenses and humanitarian exemptions are too limited and, despite special exemptions for UN and NGO organizations, many elements of humanitarian delivery fall outside the scope of these exceptions and therefore limit their usefulness. US-led sanctions against the export of many medical devices and software to Syria requires a license: medical treatment is one of the primary needs for those affected by the crises in Syria. Medical devices and related software require licenses for export. In recognition that many medical devices are inoperable without software updates and patches, the licensing requirement is particularly debilitating. Immense levels of infrastructure destruction have created an urgent need for development and reconstruction aid, without delay in transport, communications, hospitals, water, energy infrastructures and housing stock. This has included the need for mass purchasing of new technologies, dual use goods and related services/investment – many of which are subject to some element of sanctions.

The clear effects of the US-led sanctions targeting the civilian population of Syria which are being studied today in Syria by this observer and others, as well as noted in the OCHA) study noted above, are increasingly seen as constituting War Crimes requiring indictment.

The OCHA study documented that more than half the country’s public hospitals have been damaged or destroyed. British doctors working in Aleppo have reported that over 80% of those requiring urgent medical treatment die as a result of their injuries, or lack of basic care, medicine and equipment. During the course of this study the following experiences were expressed by major International NGOs (INGO) in relation to US-led sanctions targeting Syria: “There is a deep problem with regard to procedures surrounding license applications. Applications have to be submitted through national state structures. In certain countries, there appears to be ‘no’ internal procedures within government as to what criteria should be applied when considering a license application. The result is that each department pursues its own obsession and interests and they often run counter to each other.” “There is often ‘no’ feedback to your license request, just ongoing questions. Given shortage of staff [within government licensing teams,] it can take weeks to process one set of questions.” “Legal costs associated with each license can outweigh the value of the good. For example, seeking U.S. approval for a computer which is destined to Syria can cost three times as much as the actual computer.” And on and on, the problems caused to civilians by US-led sanctions continue.

In areas without basic medical care there is also an increased risk of outbreaks of infectious diseases. This is due to disruptions in vaccination programs, overcrowding in public shelters from high levels of internal displacement, damage to water and sanitation infrastructure and lack of waste management systems. Starvation and famine are also regularly reported to be on the rise, caused, it is claimed, by the effects of US-led sanctions. Power blackouts are common across the major cities as the price of power is too expensive for most Syrians, and many live without any electricity, as they cannot afford this ‘luxury’.

Let there be established without further delay a Special Tribunal for Syria, so that the global community can render its judgment on all claims of War Crimes being committed daily in Syria, by all sides. And surely these claims include the US-led civilian targeting sanctions on the people of Syria.

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Franklin Lamb volunteers with the Lebanon, France, and USA based Meals for Syrian Refugee Children Lebanon (MSRCL) which seeks to provide hot nutritional meals to Syrian and other refugee children in Lebanon. http://mealsforsyrianrefugeechildrenlebanon.com. He is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com.

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