At a time when the countries of the world are developing strategies to face the COVID-19 pandemic and focus on saving their citizens and all who live on their territories, the Syrian regime is occupied with finding ways to use this global crisis to argue for lifting the sanctions and restrictions imposed on it as a result of the atrocities it committed. Holding off the acknowledgement of the arrival of the virus to Syria, Bashar al-Assad and his allies were busy exploring how to use the pandemic to float the regime and cement its gains.
On 22 March, Minister of Health in the Syrian government, Nizar Yazigi, admitted on television the existence of the first Corona virus case in the country, weeks after the rumours started spreading on social media. The delay in announcing the first case was maintained despite the news coming from the various partner countries of the regime of the rampant spread of the virus – especially Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. The regime imposed no restrictions on the travel with these countries as the flow of people, militias and goods continued across the porous borders.
A false narrative was constructed about the sanctions being the main obstacle in the country’s capacity to respond to COVID-19. The regime’s allies made a concerted push in the UN forums to have the sanctions lifted, ignoring the fact that these sanctions never applied to the humanitarian or medical aid, but were directed at the regime for crimes against its own people.
The scope of sanctions against the Syrian regime
As of the beginning of 2020, the Syrian government was not subject to any sanctions by the United Nations due to the Russian and Chinese veto. This has meant that the Syrian regime has so far been immune to any comprehensive international sanctions targeting its institutions or individuals.
Most importantly, the United Nations sanctions are the most effective in influencing the targeted state, since all member states of the United Nations are obligated to apply these sanctions. This is because the sanctions imposed by the European Union, the US, or any other individual states are not binding on the rest of the United Nations member states.
The European Union imposes two types of sanctions on the Syrian regime. Sanctions targeting specific individuals and entities for their association with the Syrian regime and for being responsible for human rights violations, while the other sanctions target specific economic sectors, which aim at depriving the Syrian regime of the cash revenues used to kill Syrians.
On the other hand, the US sanctions imposed on the Syrian regime are more comprehensive and expanded than the European sanctions. The US sanctions against Syria were initiated back in 2004 with the Syria Accountability Act and were followed by many economic sanctions related to the intervention of the Syrian regime in Lebanon and Iraq. The sanctions applied after March 2011 were an extension of previous sanctions due to the use of military force to suppress demonstrators and kill Syrians.
Furthermore, the newly adopted Caesar Law, which has not yet been implemented, is the most important and most impactful against the Syrian regime and its allies, as it does not include only the pillars of the regime, but also any individual or entity that deals with them.
These sanctions do not target ordinary Syrians
Despite this, the countries imposing the sanctions excluded important sectors to ensure the effects of the sanctions on the regime is not reflected upon the Syrians themselves. The exceptions include granting waivers to the sanctions when the requested economic funds or resources are necessary for providing humanitarian relief, for the purpose of delivering or facilitating the delivery of aid in Syria, and finally excluding medical treatment, medical and nutritional materials, and any agricultural or humanitarian supplies to provide humanitarian relief or assistance to the civilian population.
As for US sanctions, the State Department has issued a specific guide to importing medicines and medical equipment for a number of countries, including Syria – which effectively nullifies the claims of the Syrian regime that sanctions hamper its COVID-19 response capacity.
More importantly, the US embassy in Damascus recently confirmed on its website that the sanctions do not in any way target the entry of food or medical items and stressed that there are programs funded by the United States of America working to deliver aid to various regions, including those under the regime’s control. Furthermore, US Ambassador James Jeffrey announced that “U.S. sanctions do not in any way impact the delivery of humanitarian goods, incl. medicines and medical supplies, entering Syria. Since our sanctions were implemented, we’ve provided exemptions for humanitarian aid in all areas of Syria.”
In the same vein, the European countries confirmed during the UN Security Council Session on 29 April that the EU sanctions are not an impediment to the fight against COVID-19. The ambassador of Estonia at the UN, Sven Jurgenson, summed up the EU position in response to the claims by Russia and some other countries that the sanctions needed to be lifted: “The EU remains determined to enforce its sanctions on Syria, whether against individuals, entities, or specific goods. Claims that these measures somehow undermine the fight against COVID-19 are baseless. EU restrictive measures do not block any items required to counter the outbreak from entering Syria. Humanitarian exemptions are also at the core of all EU sanctions.”
Indicatively, the World Health Organization (or any other international or humanitarian organization) did not identify any obstacles facing its work in areas under the control of the regime resulting from the sanctions against the Syrian regime. On the contrary, in the Humanitarian Update No. 06 from 17 April 2020, OCHA mentions providing the Syrian Ministry of Health with 4000 Corona virus tests since February 12, 2020 and other medical equipment to confront the virus.
However, a large number of organizations, led by Doctors Without Borders, still complain of their inability to reach civilians to help them provide medical services and materials to confront the pandemic, due to the regime’s refusal to give them permission. The sanctions have nothing to do with this.
“Assad’s Model” of dealing with COVID19
The Syrian regime has targeted everyone who warned or alerted Syrians of the spread of the disease. Doctors, media and public figures who spoke about the spread of the disease among Syrians in areas under the regime’s control were threatened and detained. Internet cafes were closed to prevent the spread of news about the disease and limiting the home-used internet packages.
The medical institutions of the healthcare system are still almost entirely in the service of the regime’s army and forces fighting on the fronts. Priority is given to the wounded of the army, security, and allied forces over any other medical conditions, regardless of how mild or dangerous.
All this is in complete disregard for the lives of the people and in a clear preference for the political and military relations of the regime over any situation or emergency that is ravaging the country, including the COVID-19 crisis.
The Syrian regime is using the pandemic in order to lift the sanctions against it, rooting its narrative in a false claim that the continuing deterioration of the economic and medical conditions in Syria is caused by the sanctions.
The continuation of the circumstances that led to the imposition of these sanctions
The sanctions are one of the few remaining pressure tools applied to the Syrian regime and its allies that limit its movement and increase its isolation from the international community. The sanctions on their own will not likely lead to a change in the totalitarian regime that exists in Syria, but in the long run they play an important role in highlighting the brutality of the Syrian regime and its allies.
Moreover, these sanctions are a pressure tool that cannot be underestimated in their capacity to extract fundamental concessions in the structure and actions of the regime as a political solution is sought. These sanctions were imposed for specific reasons related to the regime’s oppression of Syrians, and lifting them must be preceded by a fundamental change in the way the regime acts.
It is clear that the international sanctions imposed on the regime for its brutality and repression of the Syrian people are not designed to in any way hamper the response to the COVID19 pandemic. On the contrary, the countries which have imposed the sanctions remain the largest donors of humanitarian and medical aid to the Syrian people. The regime and its allies are simply using the pandemic to try and boost the regime’s capacity for war and sustain its failing, corrupt system. This is the truth that must be communicated to the Syrians living under Assad as well as to the international public.
There cannot be any return of the Syrian regime to the international scene without a fundamental change in its nature and actions. Sanctions cannot be lifted as long as the rights of the displaced are denied, as long as there are not minimum conditions for their safe, voluntary and dignified return. Any other scenario would acknowledge Bashar Al-Assad’s impunity for horrendous crimes of its regime and its allies, with lasting and irreversible destructive consequences for Syria and the region.