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Syria earthquake: Did EU, US sanctions stop aid deliveries?

February 21, 2023

On social media, calls to lift sanctions on Syria and expedite earthquake aid have gone viral. But are those calls genuine?

A Syrian man cries as he sits on the rubble of a collapsed building in the rebel-held town of Jindayris.
Civilians in northern Syria say voices of survivors under the rubble went quiet and survivors perished, while they waited for helpImage: Aaref Watad/AFP/Getty Images

The young Syrian woman has tears in her eyes. "We have no electricity, we have no gas, we have nothing," she cries angrily into the camera. "And then the earthquake happened … not a single person tried to help us. Don't let the media fool you," she pleads, and shows a graphic of airspace over Syria as part of her video.

The graphic indicates that no planes with aid for earthquake survivors had yet landed in her country, a day after the devastating earthquake which hit northern Syria and south-eastern Turkey on February 6.

Syria needs help, the young woman, who identifies herself as Patricia, a student from Damascus, rages into the camera.

But even before she had flashed the air traffic graphic on her TikTok video, which got more than 5 million views and over 240,000 mostly sympathetic comments, it had gone viral on various social media platforms. Most of those showing the graphic almost all used a variation of this hashtag: #StopSanctionsOnSyria.

Patricia's widely viewed TikTok video is an excellent example of the confusion and emotion surrounding the topic of sanctions on Syria. As frustration about delays in aid and equipment reaching parts of earthquake-hit Syria have grown, many observers asked whether sanctions were to blame for the deadly hold up.

Some asking this question genuinely want to know how they can help. Others, say critics of the authoritarian Syrian government headed by dictator Bashar Assad, are cynically using the natural disaster.

There was certainly an increase in the use of Syria sanctions-related hashtags after the earthquake, say researchers at the Syrian Archive, which uses online verification to track war crimes in Syria. "But there's no certainty as to whether these hashtags are deliberate [and part of a government-sponsored campaign] or organic," a spokesperson for the Syrian Archive told DW. "Just a general desire to help saw a lot of people participating in it. But it's also clear that this campaign is welcomed by the Syrian government."

Slow delivery of aid to northern Syria: DW's Mohamad Chreyteh

That aspect of it "is very deliberate," Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow and Syria expert at US thinktank, the Washington Institute, told DW. "The regime and its supporters are using it [the earthquake] as an excuse to call for the lifting of all sanctions on Syria."

That's despite the fact that the opposition-controlled area of Idlib — the part of northern Syria that likely paid the highest price for delays, in terms of survivors who could have been rescued but perished — is not subject to sanctions imposed on the Syrian government anyway.

"Those areas have not been under the control of the Assad regime in over a decade," Tabler pointed out.

Missing context

That kind of context is missing in a lot of the content on social media. For example, in her TikTok video, Patricia from Damascus never talks about why there are international sanctions on Syria in the first place.

Sanctions were imposed on Syria by European countries and the US after the Assad regime sparked a civil war by brutally cracking down on peaceful anti-government demonstrations during the so-called Arab Spring, starting 2011. Twelve years later, the Syrian government, now in control of much of the country again, wants to rehabilitate its image and regain access to international markets. 

Members of the White Helmets carry out a body
In northern Syria, underequipped local volunteers, the White Helmets, undertook search and rescue aloneImage: K. Rammah/AA/picture alliance

Nor does Patricia mention the revised cybercrime law introduced by the Syrian government in April 2022 that means it is dangerous for ordinary Syrians to publish or post anything that might be critical of the government. As the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy reported in a legal analysis of the revised law, the Syrian government also has a special security branch "to monitor published social media posts and other digital communications."

The air traffic graphic that TikTok's Patricia and many others presented online is also misleading. As a result of the conflict, the airspace over Syria has been out of bounds for most civilian carriers since 2015. Air traffic over Syria looks the same almost every day, incoming earthquake aid or not.

What is the truth about sanctions on Syria?

As many of the sanctioning governments were quick to point out, sanctions have always exempted humanitarian aid.

"I categorically reject the accusations that EU sanctions have any impact on humanitarian aid," the EU's crisis management commissioner, Janez Lenarcic, said shortly after the earthquake.

The German foreign office has also stressed that sanctions never applied to humanitarian aid, or even things like heavy machinery that could be used to move rubble.

"Don't fall for the narrative being spread by certain actors who are trying to further their own interests in these very difficult times," a German foreign office spokesperson warned during a recent press conference. "The current catastrophic situation is being exploited politically."

Sanctions in a gray zone

All of this is not to say that sanctions on Syria do not have some detrimental effect.

"I don't question that sanctions have negative impacts on human rights," Karam Shaar, a political economist and expert on Syrian sanctions, told DW previously. "Nobody can argue that. But we should be talking about the context and the rest of the story, too."

For example, Shaar noted, one of the biggest issues for many ordinary Syrians inside and outside the country has been the problem of sending money in and out of Syria. Sanctions are supposed to cut the Assad regime off from international banking but in effect, they've also made life very difficult for ordinary Syrians.

On February 9, the US government issued General License 23, which should go some way toward remedying this. It "authorizes for 180 days all transactions related to earthquake relief that would be otherwise prohibited by the Syrian Sanctions Regulations."

This week, the US commerce department also said it would help expedite exports to Syria that could be helpful in recovery efforts, such as telecommunications and medical gear, portable generators and water purification or sanitation equipment.

On February 15, the UK issued two additional licenses too. "UK sanctions do not target humanitarian aid, food, or medical supplies," the British government noted. But, its statement added, it recognized that some aspects of some sanctions might be impractical in a crisis. The new licenses would "make it easier for aid agencies to operate in Syria without breaching the sanctions that target Assad's regime."

EU member states have reportedly been discussing temporary changes to sanctions too. 

An aid convoy in northern Syria.
Two more border crossings from Turkey into northern Syria only opened over a week after the earthquakeImage: Rami Alsayed/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Keeping a closer eye on sanctions

Shaar, the Washington Institute's Tabler and other analysts agree that sanctions and exemptions need more monitoring and regular evaluation.

"The problem is not with sanctions as a policy tool, but with the way they are implemented in Syria and other countries, and the lack of resources dedicated to making them effective," Shaar argued in a January op-ed for the Atlantic Council thinktank .

Tabler noted that a lack of careful evaluation could cause problems with the new US exemption, General License 23. It will run for six months rather than the customary three, he said, and the definition of what is "earthquake relief" remains very broad.

"And the Assad regime has a horrible track record with diverting aid," Tabler told DW. "I know the unintended effects that sanctions can have and I also know that people are suffering and we need to get them relief. But opening up in this way allows for abuse," the former special adviser on Syria for the US State Department explained.  

In this aerial view, people living in tents following the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria on February 6, receive mattresses and other humanitarian aid.
Anger about the delayed arrival of aid into northern Syria has been growing since the February 6 earthquakeImage: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images

In this case, Tabler suggests carefully checking on earthquake damage and what needs reconstruction, then ensuring the newly enabled cash flow into Syria is actually going towards that, rather than being siphoned off by the Assad government, which could use it to either enrich itself or fund further attacks on its opponents.

Sanctioning countries have the technology and ability to be able to do this kind of monitoring, Tabler stated. "But the question is one of political will."

Edited by: J. Wingard

Anger mounts in northern Syria over late arrival of help