The tragic conditions in Syria have now persisted for more than ten years, during which the country’s infrastructure has entirely collapsed as a result of the heinous response by the Syrian regime and its allies to tens of thousands of Syrian citizens taking to the streets in peaceful demonstrations. The regime has committed the worst crimes against humanity against its own people, ranging from oppression to killing, detention, and destruction, to besieging most cities across Syria.
Joud Al-Hassan is a Berlin-based Syrian-Palestinian journalist.
Translated by Sulafah Al-Shami.
In this context, and before we look at the living and economic conditions in Syria — specifically those caused by the policies adopted by the regime and the international sanctions imposed on the government — it is worth reminding readers of the reality that the Syrian people face and the serious violations and misdeeds they have endured over the past decade.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the number of casualties in Syria had reached approximately 387,118 by December 2020, including 116,911 civilians. In addition to hundreds of thousands of deaths, more than 2.1 million civilians have been permanently maimed or injured as a result of the war. In its 2020 annual report on torture, the Syrian Network for Human Rights said that the Assad regime has detained at least 1.2 million Syrian citizens, all of whom have been subjected to different kinds of torture, while at least 14,338 have been killed under torture since the start of the Syrian revolution.
Before the war, the Syrian population was about 21 million, but today reports indicate that more than half of that population has fled their homes due to the continued violence, with the number of internally displaced people reaching about 6.7 million, most of whom live in dispersed camps. Another 5.6 million people have registered as refugees abroad, namely in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, where about 93 percent of refugees reside. It is also worth mentioning that the wave of forced Syrian displacement is regarded as the biggest wave of displacement in modern history, with about 1 million Syrian children being born in countries of refuge.
In terms of the scale of destruction impacting Syrian cities, a 2019 survey by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) indicated that the destruction reached at least 16 Syrian cities and towns due to the ongoing war and the concomitant ruin across Syrian territories. By January 2021, the UN estimated that the number of people inside Syria in need of humanitarian assistance was around 13.4 million individuals, including an estimated 6 million in acute need. More than 12 million people struggle to secure food on a daily basis, while half-a-million children suffer from chronic malnutrition.
In 2021, the crisis was further exacerbated by unprecedented economic deterioration as the value of the Syrian currency dropped significantly, leading to hyperinflation of basic food goods. In addition to the impact of COVID-19 — the full extent of which is unknown due to the limited capacity to conduct tests and the overall deterioration of the health sector — the Syrian economy has been suffering from a continuous crisis and a grinding war for over ten years, which have it two thirds of its productive capacity. As a result, the majority of Syrians now live below the poverty line.
Although sanctions are not the main cause of the poverty suffered by the Syrian people, they seem to have contributed to the intensification of social and economic problems and helped to entrench the impoverishment of most social strata, as the current sanctions fall within the framework of targeted sanctions and aim to tighten the screws on the regime by targeting military supplies, oil resources, and the financial system.
US Sanctions Did Not Start in 2011
Various international sanctions have been imposed on the Syrian regime since 2011. Those sanctions generally included financial sanctions (freezing bank accounts and assets and prohibiting financing) and economic sanctions (restrictions on importing and exporting certain goods and services, such as the embargo on Syrian petroleum products), as well as sanctions related to the free movement of individuals (travel bans imposed on several Syrian officials and businessmen), and finally diplomatic sanctions (several countries have officially severed diplomatic ties with Syria).
The series of sanctions against Syria did not start in 2011, as the United States had previously imposed a bundle of economic sanctions on Syria starting in 1979, while it was ruled by Hafez Al-Assad. At the time, the US Department of State designated Syria a state sponsor of terrorism. It imposed sanctions based on this decision under the International Security Assistance and Arms Export Control Act of 1976 and, moreover, in accordance with the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the executive order on exports, which necessitates that US Secretaries of State and Commerce obtain Congressional approval before exporting goods and technologies with a value exceeding 2 million US dollars to states accused of sponsoring terrorism. In addition to these sanctions, the US barred Syria from receiving US aid in 1981.
In 2004, additional sanctions were imposed under the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, which Congress passed in 2003. After the Syrian Revolution erupted in March 2011, the US imposed new sanctions via a number of executive orders signed by President Barack Obama. These focused on blocking American investments in Syria and freezing the deposits of Syrian officials implicated in the oppression of the Syrian people.
As for the “Caesar Act” sanctions that the US Congress passed in 2019 and implemented in 2020, they represented a substantive shift compared to previous sanctions in terms of their inclusivity and their threat to hold accountable any external entity that contributes in one way or another to supporting the regime. That legislation aimed to increase the financial, economic, and political isolation that Assad was already suffering from and blockade and punish his allies, forcing him to accept a political solution to the crisis in Syria based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
These sanctions are directed at all international and regional parties cooperating with Assad, denying him the opportunity to bypass or circumvent the sanctions. They automatically affect any economic activity, including any dealings with Iran or any regional or international parties or entities that might have considered investing or operating in Syria. The sanctions target entities that work for Assad’s interests in four sectors: oil and natural gas, aviation, construction, and engineering. This includes direct and indirect support for the Syrian regime, like supporting Iranian or Russian-backed militias operating in Syria. In addition to that, the Caesar Act stipulates that the US administration should determine whether “the Central Bank of Syria is a financial institution of primary money laundering concern”.
EU Sanctions against the Syrian Regime
In addition to US sanctions against Syria, the European Union also imposed a series of economic sanctions starting in 2011. EU sanctions on the Syrian regime can be divided into two categories: sanctions that target specific economic sectors, and sanctions that target individuals and entities linked to the Syrian regime and responsible for repression and human rights violations. Here , too, the goal is to deprive the regime of the financial resources to repress and kill the Syrian people.
However, to date, these sanctions have not been able to affect any significant change in the political status quo, stop the regime’s continued human rights violations, or push the regime’s allies to stop supporting it or participating in or benefiting from the war. This was confirmed in a research paper titled “A Comprehensive Review of the Effectiveness of US and EU Sanctions on Syria” published by the Middle East Institute. The authors, Wael al-Alwani and Karam Shaar, contended that the sanctions “did not challenge — they probably reinforced — the status quo of power centres in the regime’s core” and that individuals targeted by the sanctions were Syrians residing in Syria and occupying primary positions in the regime’s hierarchy, which meant that there was no effective utilization of secondary sanctions (targeting supporters of the regime or those who engage in transactions with it without being actual members of it) or cross-border sanctions (targeting foreign individuals or Syrians who conduct their primary activities outside of Syria).
On the other hand, over the years, the regime has built an international network to help it evade sanctions, an action that would assume the expansion of measures that target those networks via the two types of sanctions. This improved slightly after the Caesar sanctions were enacted, but it is still inadequate, according to the study.
The sanctions did not bring the Assad regime to an end and did not force it to change its behaviour or affect any radical change in Syria’s political reality. That said, it cannot be argued that the sanctions did not cause significant losses for members and allies of the Syrian regime.
They pushed many of the targeted economic entities to change their behaviour to some extent and offer concessions in cases where those entities had economic activities in Europe and the US, in addition to giving the regime and its supporters in Moscow and Tehran another reason to pursue a comprehensive political solution. To that end, the sanctions represented a deterrent factor for entities that planned to engage in economic activities in support of the Syrian regime. However, at the political decision-making level, this kind of pressure did not necessarily reflect positively on the daily reality of the Syrian people, who are drowning in a sea of crises that gets deeper every day
The Impact of Sanctions inside Syria
Inside Syria, the sanctions weakened imports and exports to and from Syria: trade with the EU shrank by more than 60 percent between 2012 and 2022, while the value of goods traded between the US and Syria plummeted from 620 million US dollars annually in 2011 to 15 million in 2019, according to a 2020 study published by the Carter Center.
Sanctions also had a direct impact on the Syrian regime’s reconstruction plan, as the US and EU prohibited the provision of government funding for reconstruction and banned foreign companies from investing in Syria. Although the primary goal of the sanctions was to weaken the regime militarily and economically, their negative impact on the living conditions of most Syrian citizens has become evident and further burdened a devastating economic, living, and humanitarian situation. In this context, the UN World Food Programme estimated the number of food-insecure people in Syria in late 2020 at 12.4 million people, compared to 7.9 million in 2019 and 6.5 million in 2018. This is an unprecedented number of food insecure people, doubling over two years.
The Syrian regime imposed its control over about 70 percent of Syrian territory with the support of Russia and Iran, while the Syrian Democratic Forces, mostly comprised of Kurds, are based in northeast Syria (an oil-rich region that includes 80 percent of Syria’s oil resources). As for Idlib, the forces in control are Haya’t Tahrir al-Sham and factions affiliated with Turkey. Around 15 percent of the Syrian borders are under the control of the Syrian regime, while Hezbollah and Iranian militias control the Syrian borders with Lebanon and Iraq, and Russia controls the border that connects the country with Turkey. The US and the Kurds control a part of the border with Iraq.
The country has been subjected to large-scale destruction throughout this grinding war, as tens of cities and towns across Syria have been targeted by violent air strikes and artillery bombs by the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies, who have used air warfare to suppress the popular movement against Assad. This war has contributed to the destruction of most Syrian cities and transforming them into a mass of rubble.
Nevertheless, the reconstruction of destroyed or impacted areas has reached a dead end due to the massive funds required, an amount that the UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura estimated at 250 billion US dollars in 2018 — more than four times Syria’s GDP before the war. According to Russian and Syrian estimates, that number is now closer to 400 billion dollars, at a time when the country has lost two thirds of its GDP. This spells hopelessness for the Syrian people, faced with the continuity of the regime and its allies as well as their inability to revive the country on their own. According to a 2020 report published by the independent Syrian Center for Policy Research, Syria has lost two thirds of its GDP, decreasing from 60 billion dollars in 2010 to 20 billion in 2019.
Squeezing Citizens and Rewarding Loyalists
It is evident that the Assad regime continued to try to make political and economic gains through reconstruction, but also by acquiring people’s property and undermining their livelihood and housing security. The regime passed a series of laws and presidential decrees to acquire real estate and dispossess people of their homes and land using the power of the law, namely Legislative Decree 66, which went into effect in September 2012. This law allows the Governorate of Damascus to evict residents from two main neighbourhoods in the capital, Basateen Al-Razi in Mazzeh and Kafr Sousah, to make way for an upscale real estate development project known as Marouta City.
In April 2018, the Syrian government passed Legislative Decree 10, which is based on Decree 66 and expands the scope of these policies at the national level so that they can be implemented across the country. Additionally, the regime passed Legislative Decree 63 in 2012, which enabled the Ministry of Finance to seize the property and assets of those who are subject to Law 19, a counter-terrorism law that was passed in the same year.
The impact of this law became evident in 2018, when it was documented that the Ministry of Finance seized more than 30,0000 properties in 2016 based on accusations of suspected terrorist activities, as well as 40,000 precautionary seizures in 2017. In addition, Law 3 of 2018 allowed the government to determine what should be regarded as damaged property, which paved the way for closing off and demolishing entire neighbourhoods and preventing civilians from returning to them. Since 2011, the Assad regime has passed more than 50 laws relating to “housing, land, and property issues”.
It is safe to say that by introducing these unjust laws, the regime has attempted to carry out a process of demographic and economic re-engineering, starting with the forced displacement campaigns of native residents and the population transfer of the regime’s loyalists in order to entrench its power and influence across the country. This time around it used legislation instead of force, which it had heavily relied on in previous years. This has served to keep the Syrian people hostage to the regime on the one the hand and at the mercy of sanctions on the other.
It is certainly not right to lift economic sanctions on a regime that continues to commit daily crimes against humanity, and to allow it to resume normal economic relations. Thus, it is necessary to develop a strategy that strengthens these sanctions to put greater pressure on the Syrian regime while finding mechanisms to mitigate their negative impact on ordinary citizens.