Analysis

The Pointlessness of America’s Syria Sanctions

The United States has given up on trying to topple Bashar al-Assad—but continues to punish the Syrian people.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
A merchant counts Syrian pound notes, bearing a portrait of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, at the Bzourieh market in the centre of the Syrian capital Damascus on September 11, 2019.
A merchant counts Syrian pound notes, bearing a portrait of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, at the Bzourieh market in the centre of the Syrian capital Damascus on September 11, 2019. LOUAI BESHARA/AFP via Getty Images

At the height of the civil war, Syrians fled heavy bombardment to save their lives, but now most of those who stayed back are determined to escape a life of penury. Most recently, Syrians were among the migrants flocking to the borders of the European Union via Belarus. That crisis was orchestrated by Russia, the Syrian government, and their Belarusian ally, but the desire of Syrians to flee the shattered economy at home was a given.

Syrians’ desperation has not subsided even though the armed conflict has. The crisis rang alarm bells in European capitals but also exposed the failings of Western policy. The international community cannot wash its hands of the Syrian problem by simply imposing sanctions. It must think more pragmatically and find a way to leverage sanctions to improve the lives of the Syrian people, rather than just keep them in place to say it has done something to punish Bashar al-Assad for his many alleged war crimes.

While the numbers heading to Europe are still low compared with five years ago, they are steadily rising and spiked last year as lines for bread and fuel became longer. According to the Associated Press, 82,000 Syrians applied for asylum in the EU in 2021, 66,000 of which were first-time applicants. That’s a 70 percent increase from the year before, despite a spike in the number of shipwrecks and drownings at sea. According to one survey, nearly 64 percent of Syrians inside government-held territory want to leave the country and resettle elsewhere. Europe is already home to a million Syrians, and there is little domestic appetite for accepting many more. For Syrians grappling with myriad daily deprivations and still inhabiting destroyed cities, however, treacherous journeys on unseaworthy vessels to Europe are the only way out.  

At the height of the civil war, Syrians fled heavy bombardment to save their lives, but now most of those who stayed back are determined to escape a life of penury. Most recently, Syrians were among the migrants flocking to the borders of the European Union via Belarus. That crisis was orchestrated by Russia, the Syrian government, and their Belarusian ally, but the desire of Syrians to flee the shattered economy at home was a given.

Syrians’ desperation has not subsided even though the armed conflict has. The crisis rang alarm bells in European capitals but also exposed the failings of Western policy. The international community cannot wash its hands of the Syrian problem by simply imposing sanctions. It must think more pragmatically and find a way to leverage sanctions to improve the lives of the Syrian people, rather than just keep them in place to say it has done something to punish Bashar al-Assad for his many alleged war crimes.

While the numbers heading to Europe are still low compared with five years ago, they are steadily rising and spiked last year as lines for bread and fuel became longer. According to the Associated Press, 82,000 Syrians applied for asylum in the EU in 2021, 66,000 of which were first-time applicants. That’s a 70 percent increase from the year before, despite a spike in the number of shipwrecks and drownings at sea. According to one survey, nearly 64 percent of Syrians inside government-held territory want to leave the country and resettle elsewhere. Europe is already home to a million Syrians, and there is little domestic appetite for accepting many more. For Syrians grappling with myriad daily deprivations and still inhabiting destroyed cities, however, treacherous journeys on unseaworthy vessels to Europe are the only way out.  

Abu Zaher tried to cross into Germany from Belarus three times, but he was either duped, detained, or deported. On his first attempt, he was abandoned in a forest near the Polish border by the smugglers he had paid to escort him to Germany. A few days later, Belarusian soldiers coerced him to swim through an icy-cold river and illegally cross into Lithuania. The Lithuanian border police caught him and promptly deported him back to Belarus. On his third attempt, he arrived in Poland but was beaten by the Polish police and once again pushed back into the forest. 

He has run out of money and is tired of running. Yet he said he would rather keep trying to get to Germany instead of returning to Syria, where there is no electricity, basic food items are unaffordable, and fuel is a precious commodity. “My only dream is to get a decent job and send some money home to my parents,” said Abu Zaher, a 33-year-old Syrian engineer who fled not bombs but a devastating economic crisis. 

Um Abdallah’s son was luckier. He managed to skip past several border authorities and reach Germany. In Syria, Abdallah worked as an apprentice with his father, a carpenter. But diminishing demand and absence of electricity meant they had little to no work and could rarely run their enterprise—a situation similar to that of most Syrians in government-held territory. Um Abdallah said life in Syria was no life at all. She preferred her son to take the risks that come with illegal travel over enduring a slew of post-conflict privations with no end in sight. 

“There has been a huge movement out of the country last year. Some families have sold everything they had to leave. I sold my jewelry to pay for my son,” Um Abdallah told Foreign Policy from a suburb near Damascus. “I wanted him to start a real life. Here we live like ghosts.”

Nine out of 10 Syrians are living in poverty and are unable to afford basic necessities such as bread, milk, and meat. The local currency devalued sharply over the last year in parallel with the crash in neighboring Lebanon, and food prices spiked by more than a 100 percent. Nearly 7 million remain internally displaced and cash-strapped with no means to rebuild their homes and communities. 

The country’s economy collapsed as a result of devastation caused by war, decades-long corruption by the Assad government, and the crash of the banking sector in Lebanon, in which not just Lebanese but Syrians too lost their deposits. But Western sanctions that banned reconstruction of any sort, including of power plants and pulverized cities, certainly exacerbated Syrians’ miseries and eliminated any chance of recovery. 

Syrians had no expectations from a government that turned their homes, shops, and schools into debris in the first place. But they had hoped that foreign investors might come to their aid, rebuild the country, and allow them to restart their lives. That hope evaporated when the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act came into force in June 2020. The U.S. law threatens sanctions on any entity, American or otherwise, if it provides “significant financial, material, or technological support” to the Syrian government. 

There is no disagreement on individual sanctions against Assad and his coterie. In fact, there seems to be consensus among experts on identifying more people in the Syrian security apparatus and sanctioning them. Across the divide, experts believe that accused Syrian war criminals should be tried in European courts under the provision of universal jurisdiction. But the usefulness of sanctions under the Caesar Act is deeply contested. 

One group believes that easing sanctions, because of a fear of a refugee influx, would amount to succumbing to Russia and Assad’s tactics. They say Assad has so far not conceded to any of the demands made by the international community in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 and has no intentions of changing his behavior.

But others suggest a more practical approach to mitigate the suffering of the Syrian people and avoid another exodus. They say that since no one believes Assad will be toppled by the opposition or dropped by his Russian patron anytime soon, a more nuanced policy is required. If the United States keeps its vast array of sanctions in place until Assad gives way to meaningful political transition, which the Syrian government sees as regime change by other means, the crisis will simply aggravate over time. But if sanctions can be properly leveraged and Syria’s economic distress eased, it might encourage Syrians to stay home. 

The International Crisis Group (ICG) has long recommended that the United States list “concrete and realistic” steps that Damascus and its allies must take in exchange for sanctions waivers. 

The Syrian leadership will not hold war criminals (or itself) accountable or even release all its prisoners. But it might deliver on other demands if sufficiently incentivized. The ICG says the regime could be induced to offer unrestricted access to international humanitarian actors, permit displaced persons to return home, and promise an end to indiscriminate airstrikes on areas outside regime control.

Dareen Khalifa, a senior ICG analyst, said Western countries currently maintain leverage in Syria by virtue of the international coalition’s military presence, sanctions, and de facto control over whether significant external resources will flow toward Syria’s reconstruction and early recovery. 

“While this leverage is probably insufficient to elicit a change in leadership in Damascus, if wielded effectively it could achieve major objectives that are of strategic value to the West and life-or-death importance to millions of Syrians,” she said. 

But in order to better utilize their leverage, the United States and the EU need to define a clearer position demonstrating that while Damascus might not get things for free, there are achievable outcomes short of regime change that would elicit Western reciprocity, Khalifa added. “The starting point in negotiations can’t be that ‘Damascus won’t budge.’ The Syrian government, like any other conflict party, has and will continue to somewhat compromise when it feels like it has no other choice than to do so—at least as long as these compromises don’t touch the core of the regime.”

Joshua Landis, the head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, is married to a Syrian Alawite and among the loudest advocates of revoking sanctions. He said: “Syrians must be allowed to dig themselves out of the pit of desperation. This means lifting sanctions. When this is done, regional investors will put money to work. Their economy will come back to life.” 

Regional investors are keen to partake in Syria’s reconstruction and in exchange push the Syrian government to contain Iran. Last year, Jordan convinced the United States to let Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity pass through Syrian territory to end Lebanon’s energy crisis but in the process also aid the Syrian economy. That move left analysts befuddled who wondered why the Biden administration had not leveraged sanctions and asked for something in return instead of handing out the concession for free. Andrew Tabler, a fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said: “To give everything in exchange for nothing is not wise.”

Team Biden has attempted to distinguish itself from the sanctions-first “maximum pressure” policies of former President Donald Trump in the Middle East, but it has not yet done anything to benefit the Syrian people. It simply carried on with the Caesar Act, which was signed into law by Trump in December 2019. President Joe Biden’s Syria policy is often described as “muddled” and one that has failed to find a balance between carrots and sticks to push for change in regime behavior. The administration seems unwilling to go beyond that and is thus leaving a crisis to languish despite its effects on millions of lives—and the future of European politics.

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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