Zurich – “People are already starving in Syria,” warned Professor Joshua Landis at an event hosted by the Quincy Institute, a Washington DC-based think tank, on Wednesday. “Medical equipment is not getting into the country. Prices have gone up. This is a siege. It is war by other means. And people are going to die in large numbers, because it’s completely indiscriminate.”
Professor Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, is one of the leading Syria experts in the United States. The event at which he spoke, entitled, “The Human Rights Impact of Broad-Based Economic sanctions,” also featured Professor Asli Bali of UCLA, and Peter Beinart, a columnist at the New York Times, who offered their own critiques of U.S. sanctions regimes around the world.
The U.S. imposed an enhanced sanctions regime on Syria in August 2011, when President Obama first demanded that Syria’s ruler, Bashar al-Assad, step down from power. The EU and other nations quickly joined the sanctions effort. In 2020, the U.S. implemented the Caesar Act, which mandates sanctions on any individual or company, anywhere in the world, that engages in reconstruction work in Syria.
Landis explained in stark terms how the Caesar Act and other sanctions policies have pushed Syria towards economic ruin and mass poverty, by making it extremely difficult to conduct financial transactions, import essential goods, maintain vital infrastructure, or keep electricity running. More than 80% of the Syrian population is today below the poverty line, Landis said, and even people who used to belong to the upper classes have become completely dependent on government aid for survival.
Landis acknowledged that many factors are contributing to the “immiseration” of the Syrian people, including the Lebanese banking crisis and the vast damage caused by the international conflict in Syria. “But clearly,” he said, “this policy of denying resources and sanctioning and sabotaging any effort to supply Syria is really starving people.”
At the same panel, Professor Asli Bali, a scholar of human rights law, observed that, unlike in war, under broad-based sanctions regimes “no distinction between civilian and military targets is remotely possible.” “The economic consequences of broad-based sanctions,” Bali said, “affect health infrastructure, water and sanitation, the possibly of sustaining education, and access to critical foods.” As a result, “Sanctions that we present as ‘starving Assad’ are actually a form of collective punishment that are starving a civilian population.”
While the sanctions against Syria are justified as a measure to promote human rights and a transition to democracy, the panelists observed that sanctions have an extremely poor track record in achieving those goals – not least because, in Professor Bali’s words, they make “the civilian population far more dependent on the very regime we claim we’re trying to dispatch.” Landis suggested instead that the sanctions policy should be understood as an attempt to, in the words of Ambassador James Jeffrey, the U.S.’s former special representative for Syria, “turn Syria into a quagmire” for Russia and Iran.
Peter Beinart analogized the situation to the 1990s sanctions regime on Iraq, which UNICEF and other authorities claimed led to the deaths of 500,000 children. Beinart observed that, at that time, “in the debate in Washington, if you challenged sanctions, you were seen as being on the side of Saddam Hussein.” Beinart exhorted policymakers to reject this “Manichean view” and “have a real-world conversation about what we can actually achieve with tools that are actually morally defensible.”
Reacting to the panel today from Zurich, Dr. John Eibner, the international president of Christian Solidarity International, commended the panelists for speaking so frankly about the campaign of collective punishment against the Syrian people. “Whatever legitimate goals the U.S. may have in Syria, subjecting an entire civilian population to hunger and economic despair is an immoral and illegal way to achieve those goals,” Eibner said.
Eibner pointed to an Open Letter that was sent to President Biden on January 21, 2021, by over 90 dignitaries, including six prominent church leaders from Syria, which asked the president to remove those sanctions that harm the Syrian people. Eibner commented, “It is long past time for the United States, the European Union, the Swiss Confederation and other sanctioning states to listen to the voice of the Syrian people and their supporters and end this collective punishment.”