In the face of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that devastated parts of Turkey and Syria on February 6 — claiming the lives of more than 50,000 people — the Biden administration took a symbolically important but thoroughly insufficient step toward doing the right thing: It temporarily eased certain economic sanctions to allow humanitarian support into a ravaged Syria.
After years of crippling sanctions and efforts to isolate Syria from the rest of the world, Washington’s decision February 9 reflected at least some level of recognition of the quake’s devastation. It also represented a significant victory for activists, including the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and others, who moved swiftly into action to make clear that, if the United States actually wanted to help the Syrian people, lifting sanctions had to be a central part of any relief package.
Perhaps most importantly, the policy change is at least a partial de facto acknowledgement from the White House of the harm that broad economic sanctions inflict. Washington has imposed sanctions on Syria since 1979, and most of the ostensible targets have been government agencies and officials. But ordinary people have felt the impact far more than any elites, as is true under any authoritarian government.
In 2004, President George W. Bush escalated sanctions against Syria in the context of the so-called Global War on Terror. In 2011, as Syria’s Arab Spring uprising was met with severe government repression and Washington joined the widening, emerging proxy wars, the United States froze Syrian government assets, prohibited investment and cut off any purchase involving Syria’s oil industry.
In 2020, the Trump administration dramatically expanded sanctions again. The new law stated the U.S. policy is that “diplomatic and coercive economic means should be utilized to compel the government of Bashar al-Assad to halt its murderous attacks on the Syrian people and to support a transition to a government in Syria that respects the rule of law, human rights, and peaceful co-existence with its neighbors.” Among other things, the new sanctions prohibited any “contracts related to reconstruction in areas of Syria controlled by the Syrian government and its allies.” Needless to say, none of the sanctions stopped the Syrian government’s repression and human rights violations.