Assad’s Syria Is Starting to Starve Like Saddam’s Iraq
How sanctions against the Syrian regime are forcing the country into famine.
Thirty-year-old Ayman fled Damascus, Syria, for Beirut at the beginning of the Syrian civil war. Over the last year, while Lebanon’s economy collapsed and it became harder for him to find work, the conflict back home seemed to be subsiding. So he called several of his friends, all living in regime-controlled territory, to inquire if it was time to return. They were unequivocal. “They said, ‘Stay wherever you are, there’s not even enough to eat here,’” Ayman said, on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.
During the nine-year civil war, much of Syria’s infrastructure was destroyed by the blind bombing of the regime and its Russian allies, as well as front-line fighting. Food production, power generation, and other industries fell by the wayside. Syria’s economy, tethered to Lebanon’s, hobbled on for a while. However, early this year, as Lebanon’s monetary policy unraveled and capital controls were imposed to avoid a run on the banks, billions of dollars of deposits by Syrian businesses were also blocked. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad claims Lebanese banks hold at least $20 billion of Syrians’ earnings, which, if they were accessible, would resolve the Syrian economic crisis all at once. The currencies of Lebanon’s neighbors plummeted simultaneously as prices of basic commodities skyrocketed, in Syria by more than 200 percent. Life became hard for the Lebanese, but harder still for war-ravaged Syrians.
Images of hundreds of Syrians lining up outside bakeries for subsidized bread and parked for hours on end at fuel stations flooded social media. Residents complained of the worst food and fuel crisis ever in their country. “Power cuts make it near impossible for businesses to operate,” said one of Ayman’s friends from Damascus. “Fuel is too expensive to run generators.”
According to the World Food Program, 9.3 million Syrians are unsure where their next meal is coming from, an increase of around 1.4 million in the first six months of the year. Moreover, northeast Syria, the country’s breadbasket, is under the control of the United States’ Kurdish allies the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are yet to come to an agreement with the regime on grain supply. Once a wheat exporter, Syria had become partly dependent on supplies from Russia, but even that aid failed when Moscow reduced flour sales abroad to maintain reserves at home during the uncertain times of the coronavirus pandemic. Furthermore, U.S. sanctions on oil and gas meant only Iranian crude found its way to Syria. Lack of that basic resource has had a ripple effect on the agriculture and energy sectors, also impacting local businesses.
More than 80 percent of Syrians now live below the poverty line. Desperation to make ends meet has caused a concomitant rise in crime. Gangs smuggling contraband, guns, and drugs, as well as kidnapping people for ransom, are running amok in several parts of the country.
Whilst this is all deeply linked to decades of corruption, mismanagement, and a brutal pulverization of rebel-held territory, some critics say that the crises are also a result of America’s sectoral sanctions.
A troubling comparison is being made: whether sanctions will be as cruel and self-defeating in Syria as they were in Iraq two decades ago. The numbers are disputed, but according to one study half a million children were said to have died in Iraq as a result of U.S.-led sanctions. Saddam Hussein remained as dictatorial as ever and was ousted after years of suffering only when the United States attacked with its military.
The aim of this year’s Caesar sanctions, named after the police defector who fled Syria with the evidence of the killing of thousands of Syrians in state-run prisons, is likewise to compel the Syrian regime to change its behavior toward its people from “murderous” to more accommodating. Senior Western diplomats have told Foreign Policy on many occasions that sanctions are the West’s last leverage against Assad to pressure him to release political prisoners, ensure the safe return of refugees, and agree to a political reconciliation that, if carried out sincerely, would eventually mean him leaving power. They insist that paying for Syrian reconstruction, including of infrastructure like power plants and irrigation systems that are necessary for the country’s food security and daily life, will end up strengthening the regime’s oppression. They say they have no intention of letting Assad succeed in that, at least not unless he makes significant concessions. Moreover, the West is worried that Assad may simply siphon off the funds, as he has allegedly done with a large portion of the humanitarian aid already sent for the war-afflicted.
But others say that sanctions cannot reform an incorrigible dictator and are merely punishing the Syrian people. They posit that, as in Iraq, the Syrian population is bearing the brunt of sanctions while Assad and his cronies are facing neither food nor fuel shortages. They assert that it is naive for the United States to expect Assad to hold war criminals accountable, as he can hardly be expected to indict himself. Their argument is that the United States must reverse its maximum pressure policy and institute stage-by-stage waivers on sanctions that it would be ready to provide in return for delivery of more pragmatic demands.
Bente Scheller, the head of the Middle East and North Africa Division at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, said there was no disagreement on targeted sanctions against Assad’s cronies but that America’s sectoral sanctions were having a negative impact on ordinary people. “U.S. sanctions are based on a ‘maximum pressure’ logic,” she said. “This is why they include sectoral sanctions, while only in a second step listing individuals. [European Union] sanctions have been largely targeted: They consist of travel bans on regime officials and proxies based on their respective role in human rights violations. Sectoral sanctions such as against Syrian banks curb the regime’s abilities to purchase goods from outside. Humanitarian and medical goods are clearly exempted—Syrian civil society has pointed out, however, that over-compliance is affecting them.”
Aron Lund, a Syria specialist with the Swedish Defence Research Agency, said both the U.S. and EU sanctions came with exemptions for humanitarian activities and legitimate civilian trade. However, businesses tended to fear having anything to do with a country under sanctions, simply because it was too complicated to understand the rules and they did not want to take any risks. “Companies avoid even permissible trade, simply to stay clear of risks and legal hassle,” he said. “When international banks or shipping companies decide that navigating the sanctions system just isn’t worth the trouble, it makes imports difficult and costly across the board.”
Zahraa Matr is a 55-year-old woman nicknamed Zahraa Dollars in Iraq. She smuggled dollars inside the country at the peak of the sanctions against Saddam and remembers the hard times. “Kids started to die because of the lack of medicines and medical supplies at the hospitals during the sanction years,” she said. “People sold their belongings like furniture, metal—anything else they could sell to survive.”
In Syria, even anti-regime Syrians are beginning to say that sectoral sanctions in the oil and gas and construction sectors hurt the people more than the regime. In Quneitra, southern Syria, 29-year-old father of three Abu Mishal said that he could rarely afford diesel, so to keep his family warm this winter he was burning garbage, plastic, and dung. “Sanctions have made goods more expensive for ordinary Syrians. I don’t think that the Syrian regime officials and their families are going to sleep hungry or cold,” Abu Mishal said. “In my opinion, the regime and its mafia also used the sanctions as an excuse to raise prices and exploit poor people more and more.”
Faced with an obstinate and intransigent Assad, the United States faces an impossible conundrum. Former U.S. President Barack Obama did not repeat an Iraq-style war that would oust Assad but commit the United States to yet another country for the foreseeable future. The Syrian question remains unresolved nonetheless. Nine years on, Obama’s vice president, President-elect Joe Biden, confronts a different challenge: how to stop starvation in Syria and help people resurrect their lives while not benefiting Assad. The guilty feelings of his former colleagues in the Obama administration, who watched the Syrian war devolve into chaos, would urge him to take a keen interest. How far up the incoming president’s list of priorities Syria will be is another matter.