U.S. Sanctions Are Killing Innocent Syrians
The Caesar Act isn’t hurting Assad; it’s harming civilians.
A friend of mine was found dead in his bed this past winter because he had no heating. Why? Because U.S. sanctions are hurting ordinary people rather than Bashar al-Assad’s government; there is only an hour or so of electricity per day.
Last month, my phone rang. A relative in Damascus asked me to help a young Syrian child, Mohammed Daafis. Two-year-old Mohammed’s family uses a Primus kerosene stove, a Victorian-era product, for cooking. There is no boiler for running hot water in the shower. Electricity rationing in Syria has reached its highest levels due to the government’s inability to secure the fuel needed to generate electricity as a result of international sanctions.
Like any child of his age, Mohammed was playing with his siblings—in a 300-square-foot dark house. Mohammed fell into a tub of hot water heated by his mother on the Primus stove. She moved away for a chore momentarily, but in the dark house, Mohammed did not see the tub.
Hearing his screams, his mother ran to him. His father, a street vendor, confined to a wheelchair due to a wounded leg from the war, rushed to him as fast as he could. They hurried the scalded boy to the Al Mojtahed Hospital in Damascus, a government-run facility. The burned and bleeding child’s condition worsened. He then needed a blood transfusion.
The government doctors stood helpless in the face of his pain and suffering. The transfused blood was infected. Mohammed’s family now urgently needed to transfer him to a private hospital, but how does a father who sells tomatoes in a trolley foot the bill?
The value of the Syrian pound has plummeted to almost nothing; it is now about 3,660 pounds to the U.S. dollar. An average wage in Syria is less than $2 a day; Mohammed’s father did not make even a dollar a day. The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019, a law signed by then-U.S. President Donald Trump, was sold as a win for the forces of justice against a brutal government. But the act has not brought justice; instead it has brought starvation, darkness, plague, misery, robbery, kidnappings, and the destruction of a nation. International aid no longer reaches Syria to the extent it did previously because many agencies fear falling foul of the Caesar Act.
This is not about Assad; just as we do not choose where we are born, Syrians did not choose their government. Faced with sanctions, Assad will rely on Iranian support, which will bring even more harm to Syria as ordinary citizens continue to suffer.
Mohammed’s father turned to my relative, who sent me shockingly graphic pictures of the boy’s burns. Traumatized, I made every effort to help. After much difficulty, Mohammed was admitted to a private hospital, but in Syria, even the private hospitals are not equipped as they are in the rest of the world. Remember how the United States and United Kingdom all struggled to acquire personal protective equipment during the early days of the pandemic? Syrians are still living that experience daily due to a shortage of oxygen and basic medical supplies.
The doctors informed Mohammed’s father that the little boy would not survive if he stayed in Syria, so I rushed to contact a better-equipped private hospital in Beirut, Lebanon—several hours away by car. After much pleading, we were able to find a bed. Red Cross and Red Crescent ambulances from both countries took the child across the Syrian-Lebanese border.
Doctors at the hospital in Beirut, which has asked not to be named, tried to save Mohammed. For six days, the boy struggled. But even Lebanon lacks advanced medical equipment. The hospital bill ran to more than $100,000. A virulent infection caused his kidneys to fail, and his heart eventually stopped. He will not be the last Syrian child to die as a result of sanctions-induced deprivation.
No Syrian children under the age of 10 have ever seen their country at peace. And if they remain starved and deprived of basic medical care in a country with no economic opportunities, they could eventually become the foot soldiers of a new terrorism outbreak in the Middle East. Many of Iran’s mullahs regularly vow “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” at their politicized mosques. Despite U.S. sanctions, Syrians have no such culture—yet. But deprivation and foreign influence can change things.
Indeed, it has been clear from 9/11 onward that increased terrorism in the Middle East always reaches the United States—its ultimate target.
If the U.S. strategy is to force Syrians to topple Assad, that has not and will not work. People will rally to the government: That is the lesson from Fidel Castro’s Cuba under U.S. sanctions. Look across the border to where Iran now controls much of Iraq and Lebanon; does Washington want to create a vacuum in Syria where proxies of Turkey or Iran replay the civil war, bringing Iran even closer to directly confronting Israel?
Regime change has not worked in Syria. The West’s grievances with Assad should not result in collective punishment of an entire nation. Mohammed’s family is only one of millions with wounded and disabled parents.
More than half a million Syrians have died since 2011. Some 13 million people—more than half the country’s prewar population—have been displaced. Many are heading toward Europe, and unless sanctions are lifted soon, many more will become refugees in the West. They have nothing to lose in their voyage across the Mediterranean. And they will carry their anger with them.
Yet Josep Borrell, the European Union minister for foreign affairs, insisted on punishing the Syrian people in his statement last month, saying that the European Union “will not lift the sanctions imposed on Syria before the start of a political transition in the country.”
This naive approach to politics fails to grasp the reality of the Middle East or show concern for the lives of ordinary children like Mohammed. Britain, France, and Germany have all renewed their sanctions rather than realize that sanctions do not work. Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Castro were not removed by sanctions. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran hasn’t been toppled either. This is the definition of insanity often attributed to Albert Einstein: “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
Can U.S. President Joe Biden, U.S. Congress, and European leaders sleep at night while an entire people die of hunger, oppression, and marginalization just because politicians want to be seen as doing something tough to oppose the Syrian government?
Biden has experienced the loss of two of his own children and is uniquely positioned to appreciate the grief of Syrian parents. He should lift the United States’ ineffective sanctions, give Syrians a new chance at life, and rebuild what ugly power politics has destroyed.