The earthquake that struck northern Syria and southern Turkiye on February 6, 2023, offered a new window for the Assad regime to see the world outside after closing all doors for its war crimes. Since 2011, harsh sanctions have been imposed on this regime after suppressing the Syrian people’s revolution.
The devastating earthquake left hundreds of thousands dead and injured, so urgent aid was so demanded. However, this was not as simple as it should be because these sanctions were obstructing the delivery of relief to the quake victims.
For this purpose, European and Western countries, and even the United States, resorted to announcing the easing of sanctions against the Bashar al-Assad regime as long as the implementation of humanitarian activities or the provision of aid to civilians in Syria required changes.
However, this Western door, which was suddenly opened in the face of the Assad regime, put the West under options that observers believe will be in the interest of the economically collapsed regime and the search for any fine thread that will restore international dealings again and break the current political stalemate.
According to a report published by the opposition Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) on February 28, 2023, the earthquake killed 2,534 people in areas outside the regime’s control, while 394 were killed in areas under its control.
Paradoxically, the greatest damage and destruction occurred in the Syrian opposition areas, where about one million people were displaced, out of 5 million living in Aleppo and Idlib, while 1,123 houses were completely destroyed there, and the number of uninhabitable houses reached nearly 14,000.
Despite this, on March 3, 2023, Switzerland decided to ease its sanctions against the Syrian regime to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid, especially to those affected by the earthquake.
Humanitarian organizations that receive funds from the Swiss Confederation for their activities on Syrian soil can obtain exemptions from sanctions to provide humanitarian aid and support civilians.
The Swiss government said in a statement that it had decided to expand humanitarian exceptions in order to facilitate humanitarian activities in Syria, in particular the humanitarian response to the earthquake, without specifying the duration of this exceptional measure.
Switzerland allows the supply of assets and economic resources of sanctioned persons, entities, and companies from humanitarian actors that receive funds from the Confederation.
As for humanitarian actors that do not receive contributions from the Swiss Confederation, a scheme is in place to grant them exceptional permits to provide economic resources to sanctioned persons, companies, and entities as long as they request the implementation of humanitarian activities or the provision of aid to civilians in Syria.
There were similar measures taken by the United States and the European Union against the Syrian regime after the earthquake.
On February 23, 2023, the European Union announced a temporary easing of the sanctions imposed on the Assad regime in order to facilitate the delivery of aid.
The European Council said, in a statement, that “EU sanctions in place regarding Syria target the Assad regime and its supporters, as well as sectors of the economy from which the regime was making profit. The sanctions regime does not prohibit the export of food, medicines or medical equipment by the EU to Syria, and does not target Syria’s healthcare system.”
“The sanctions regime includes a wide-ranging humanitarian exception to ensure the continued provision of humanitarian assistance to any part of the country,” according to the statement.
The European Council added: “In view of the gravity of the humanitarian crisis in Syria exacerbated by the earthquake, the Council decided today to adopt an additional humanitarian amendment to further facilitate the speedy delivery of humanitarian assistance. The amendment applies for a period of six months.
“With this amendment, the EU has waived the need for humanitarian organizations to seek prior permission from EU member states national competent authorities to make transfers or provide goods and services intended for humanitarian purposes to listed persons and entities.”
After the earthquake, the European Union provided €3.5 million to help meet the urgent humanitarian needs in Syria.
EU sanctions imposed in 2011 on the Assad regime include 291 persons targeted by both assets freeze and a travel ban and 70 entities subject to an assets freeze.
The U.S. Treasury also issued Syria General License (GL) 23, which authorizes for 180 days all transactions related to earthquake relief that would be otherwise prohibited by the Syria Sanctions Regulations (SSR).
Its statement stressed that “U.S. sanctions programs do not target legitimate humanitarian assistance, including earthquake disaster relief efforts. The U.S. government has long had several general licenses in place under the SSR that permit most activities in support of humanitarian assistance, including in regime-held areas, by the United Nations, the U.S. government, or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) engaging in transactions in support of certain not-for-profit activities.”
Exploiting Financial Aid
Nearly 12 years after the Syrian revolution erupted to oust the Assad regime, leaving hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths at the hands of the Assad regime’s forces, massive destruction of infrastructure, and the displacement of about 13 million people, out of 23 million.
February 22, 2023, 258 planes carrying international aid have arrived exclusively in the regime’s areas, 129 of which are from the UAE, which is leading the regional relief efforts.
Meanwhile, in the first week of the earthquake, the Syrian opposition areas were left without any aid from the United Nations for at least 72 hours, according to what the executive director of Baytna Syria, Assaad al-Achi, said in press statements in early March 2023.
The United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, Martin Griffiths, acknowledged the international organization’s shortcomings in Syria, saying on Twitter on February 12 that the Syrian people are right to feel abandoned.
Relief efforts in Syria are severely hampered by the policies of Bashar al-Assad, who requires the passage of all humanitarian aid destined for opposition-held areas through his regime. This inevitably “slows” aid delivery and leads to political blackmail.
Nevertheless, Washington warned that easing sanctions on Bashar al-Assad would make it easy to normalize relations with his regime again.
That is why U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said about lifting sanctions on the Assad regime that “U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters that it would be “ironic, if not even counterproductive, for us to reach out to a government that has brutalized its people over the course of a dozen years now.”
Price said the U.S. would continue to provide aid through “humanitarian partners on the ground,” according to AP.
Therefore, the abolition of sanctions, on the pretext that they harm Syrian citizens and impede the delivery of humanitarian aid, will contribute to the Assad regime’s exploitation of foreign funding to achieve political or military gains.
This is especially since Western sanctions against Assad are a tool to combat the repression he has inflicted on the people since 2011. Some argue that Assad cannot be trusted to provide services or assistance to people in the opposition areas he has targeted and bombed so badly.
The Most Dangerous Easing
Younis al-Karim, the Syrian researcher and director of the Economist SY website, said easing the sanctions imposed on the Assad regime after the earthquake is the most dangerous mitigation under the Penal Code.
Al-Karim attributed this, in an interview with Al-Estiklal, to “the fact that the sanctions relief came even for the entities and persons punished that work in the humanitarian field, and therefore this matter gave the Assad regime wide flexibility to the entities.”
The researcher added: “Bashar al-Assad can provide evidence that he can use the frozen funds in humanitarian operations, and this will relieve the regime by moving its frozen balances.”
As for “punished individuals close to the Assad regime, they will be able to give up their money in order to finance and pay for the aid, and when it arrives in Syria, it will be controlled and recycled in the sale process as a trade,” according to al-Karim.
He also pointed out that “the Syrian regime used to deal with Swiss banks, and therefore it can reactivate financial operations, which gives the regime flexibility to move balances in Europe, benefiting from the branches and relations of this bank in the European Union.”
“Through this portal, the Assad regime can lift seizures and penalties on many of its properties under the pretext of using them in humanitarian operations, in addition to benefiting from reducing penalties for individuals through the Swiss portal, as it operates within European laws, so that the regime works through law firms to reduce penalties in European banks.”
Al-Karim warned that “easing sanctions on the Assad regime may open the way for other countries to follow the example of Switzerland, which means that the regime has found a small loophole to break Western sanctions by benefiting from aid to ease sanctions under the pretext of the earthquake.”