(Beirut) – In the aftermath of the massive earthquakes that struck southern Turkey and northern Syria on February 6, 2023, calls to lift sanctions on Syria went viral on social media, sometimes backed by oversimplified claims that sanctions were preventing emergency humanitarian aid from reaching Syria.
Various Syrian government entities and officials seized the moment to insist that sanctions were severely hampering relief efforts, with one official saying that sanctions were “causing the death of people under the rubble” and another claiming that United States-imposed sanctions bar “everything,” including of medicine and medical supplies.
In the days that followed, certain countries, including Venezuela, China, Russia, and Cuba – all countries that themselves are subject to international sanctions – as well as UN experts also called for lifting or easing unilateral sanctions on Syria.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, United States and European Union officials and sanctions advocates said that the sanctions include humanitarian exceptions and have no effect on humanitarian operations in Syria, with some pointing out that the same Western countries imposing sanctions on Syria are also the biggest donors to UN agencies’ operations inside Syria.
The reality is not so straightforward. And despite the exceptions, sanctions affect humanitarian operations in Syria in a number of ways, including by making it difficult to access essential goods, leading to reduced funding for aid organizations, restricting travel and movement, increasing bureaucratic hurdles, and more generally, impeding economic activity.
As a result, Syrians’ rights to life, health, food, and other elements of the right to an adequate standard of living may be at risk, particularly for those who are already vulnerable or marginalized.
In the weeks following the earthquakes, the US, EU, and United Kingdom all amended their individual sanctions regimes in an attempt to speed up earthquake relief.
The following question-and-answer document provides context and further information about the impact of sanctions on humanitarian assistance efforts, both for immediate needs and for longer-term initiatives aimed at restoring essential services and creating conditions for stability and sustainable development in conflict-affected areas. The information is based on interviews with seven local and international humanitarian workers involved in aid operations in both government-held areas and the opposition-held northwest, as well as a review of the humanitarian exceptions to sanctions regimes and counterterrorism measures in place.
- To what extent is humanitarian assistance crucial for advancing the basic rights of the Syrian population?
- What sanctions have been imposed on Syria and why?
- What is the impact of sanctions on Syrians’ economic rights?
- Do sanctions affect aid operations in Syria?
- What are the humanitarian exemptions to sanctions on Syria?
- What about counterterrorism measures’ effect on humanitarian operations?
- Did sanctions hamper the emergency aid response in the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes?
- What other factors hamper the principled delivery of humanitarian aid in Syria?
- How can sanctions be more effective and less harmful to Syrians’ basic rights?
- What are humanitarian workers calling for?
- To what extent is humanitarian assistance crucial for advancing the basic rights of the Syrian population?
Even before the deadly earthquakes hit, Syrians were facing a severe humanitarian crisis brought on by the prolonged armed conflict, the unprecedented depreciation of the national currency, economic crises in neighboring Turkey and Lebanon, the Covid-19 pandemic, sanctions, a severe drought, and the economic consequences of the war in Ukraine. More than 12 years of war have decimated Syria’s civilian infrastructure and services, including homes, healthcare facilities, water and sanitation systems, and electricity grids. Severe fuel shortages have paralyzed the country.
Over 90 percent of Syrians live below the poverty line, at least 12 million Syrians – more than half the population – can’t access or afford enough quality food, and at least 15 million Syrians across Syria require some form of humanitarian aid to meet their basic needs, making Syria the recipient of one of the world’s largest humanitarian responses.
Syrians have relied on UN agencies and international humanitarian organizations to respond to emergencies, including, in recent years, the Covid-19 pandemic, a cholera outbreak, and the February 2023 earthquakes, both for immediate needs and for more sustainable ones, including the rehabilitation of critical infrastructure, such as healthcare and sanitation facilities.
UN agencies and humanitarian organizations are obligated to carry out their operations while adhering to the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence. In particular, international humanitarian principles call for aid to be delivered impartially to those most in need, without any distinction or discrimination. In the difficult operating environment that is Syria today, UN agencies and humanitarian organizations face significant barriers to the principled provision of humanitarian aid across the country.
These include security and access issues posed by a fragmented country with multiple zones of control; the Syrian government’s coopting of humanitarian aid to fund its atrocities, punish those perceived as opponents, and benefit those loyal to it; and the daunting bureaucracy of various unilateral sanctions regimes.
Various sanctions have been imposed on the Syrian government, government officials, and related entities by the US, UK, EU, and others in response to the government’s rampant war crimes and other serious human rights violations since 2011. The sanctions’ stated purpose is to prevent the government from using violence against its own people, and to press for necessary political reforms. This document focuses on US and EU sanctions regimes specifically, which aid agencies have identified as most pertinent to humanitarian operations.
Both the US and EU have imposed targeted sanctions, including a combination of asset freezes and bans on admission to those countries for Syrian individuals and entities involved in human rights violations against civilians. The more general, or sectoral, sanctions they impose prohibit certain activities – such as the purchase, sale, or export of goods and materials relating to or contributing to specific industries or sectors that may be used against civilians. They include technology, oil and gas, and material used in infrastructure projects such as networks for providing electricity.
Other sanctions are financial, affecting both individuals and sectors. Measures include restrictions on the sale of bonds or the opening of new bank accounts for Syrian financial institutions and Syrian individuals outside Syria, as well as restrictions on financial transactions with designated Syrians.
The US primary sanctions on the Syrian government are the most severe, prohibiting almost all trade and financial ties between the US and Syria, including a prohibition on the export or re-export of US goods, software, technology and services to Syria, with certain exceptions for certain categories of humanitarian aid, such as food and medicine, and a ban on banks and foreign companies’ use of the US financial system to process Syria-related transactions. In 2019, secondary sanctions were introduced under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, designed to ban certain categories of trade with third countries.
This act allowed for sanctioning a company in another country if it engages in certain transactions with the Syrian government, entities owned or controlled by the Syrian government, and other sanctioned Syrian companies, individuals or entities. This includes companies that support Syrian government oil and gas production, and construction and engineering services, effectively disrupting efforts to rebuild Syria.
Sanctioned governmental institutions and state-owned entities that may be relevant to humanitarian operations include the Central Bank of Syria, the mobile network provider Syriatel, and Syrian airlines Cham Wings and Syrian Air. One worker in a humanitarian organization, whose organization looked into sanctions’ effect on education in Syria, said that due to restrictions on IT equipment imports, US software, and the use of SyriaTel, children in Syria could not remotely access educational services.
EU sectoral sanctions are more targeted in scope and include export restrictions on goods and technology that could be “used for internal repression.” They include prohibitions on buying Syrian crude oil and petroleum products, selling equipment and technology for developing Syria’s oil and gas industry, and the import and export of gold and precious metals, and include asset freezes on a number of individuals and entities, including the Central Bank of Syria.
They also restrict investments and insurance and reinsurance in Syria, limit Syrian banks’ ability to operate in the EU, and prohibit exporting equipment, technology, and software for monitoring or intercepting internet and telephone communications. Despite these sanctions, the EU remains one of Syria’s largest trading partners. The UK government’s sanctions regime largely resembles the EU’s.
The UN has not imposed sanctions on the Syrian government, but the UN Security Council has imposed counterterrorism measures on armed groups and affiliated individuals designated as terrorist actors operating in the country. UN member states are obligated to comply with these measures.
They include financial sanctions such as asset freezes against designated groups, prohibiting providing funds and resources to them, even indirectly, and criminal counterterrorism measures, which make criminal offenses activities that may be seen as supporting terrorist groups. The armed groups sanctioned in Syria under these measures include Hay’et Tahrir al Sham (HTS), a coalition of Islamist Sunni anti-government armed groups that controls a portion of northwest Syria, the region most heavily affected by the recent earthquakes.
Syria’s economic woes have in large part been brought on by the significant destruction of civilian infrastructure, the economic crisis in Lebanon, which has placed a strain on the external assets of Syrians and their access to dollars, and the Syrian government’s rampant corruption and diversion of resources for political purposes in a manner that harms rights. Some of the Syrian government’s own fiscal policies have contributed to a worsening crisis.
Years of conflict and egregious violations have decimated Syria’s economic and social infrastructure. A 2022 World Bank study of 14 Syrian cities found that since 2011, the war had caused significant damage to physical infrastructure, including irrigation systems, electricity, water supply and sanitation, and housing, as well as health and education facilities.
Much of the destruction occurred as a result of the Syrian-Russian military alliance’s indiscriminate and targeted attacks on these facilities. The anti-ISIS global coalition and Turkish forces are also responsible for attacking essential infrastructure. The destruction of infrastructure and massive displacement have harmed Syrians’ basic rights, including to health, adequate housing, and food.
The World Food Programme estimates that 12.1 million people in Syria are food insecure. Access to adequate health care and housing are also at risk, with thousands of displaced Syrians unable to find adequate shelter or medical care.
While the violations by parties to the conflict, mainly the government and its allies, have been the primary cause of the problem, there is a growing body of opinion among some UN experts, Syria researchers, and Syrian economists that sectoral sanctions have exacerbated Syria’s economic crisis, and that Syrian civilians have primarily borne the brunt.
The opponents contend that sanctions have, often inadvertently, prevented entities inside Syria from importing necessary supplies to rebuild schools, homes, and hospitals and from accessing fuel and other oil derivatives for cooking, heating, and transportation. They have made it difficult for Syrians to conduct financial transactions, to receive remittances – a major source of income for Syrian households, and to import medical supplies or food. The result is shortages in supplies or price increases. Humanitarian workers told Human Rights Watch that broad sanctions meant to deprive the Syrian government of financial and material support have also prevented humanitarian organizations from implementing early recovery projects that seek to encourage self-reliance for Syrians and decrease their dependency on emergency humanitarian assistance.
At the same time, there is little evidence that unilateral sanctions on Syria have improved the government’s behavior. A September 2020 paper by the Arab Reform Initiative, an independent Arab research organization, highlights the ways the government overcomes the impact of sanctions on its power structure. It shows that the government and its affiliates have largely managed to circumvent targeted sanctions through a web of criminal and illegal black-market networks, and at the same time use sanctions as a scapegoat for economic failures.
While policymakers should regularly review sanctions with a view toward minimizing their harm on civilians and increasing their effectiveness in meeting their stated goals, they should not be used as an excuse to hamper Syria’s recovery. Instead, policymakers should address the impact of sanctions as part of a strategy to address the broader causes of economic collapse.
Many sanctions on Syria include carveouts designed to address humanitarian needs, spare civilians, and ensure that aid operations are not hampered. But, as aid workers told Human Rights Watch, they still do limit the humanitarian community’s ability to respond to the massive needs in Syria. An important challenge is the often confusing, time-consuming, and costly bureaucratic hurdles that banks, exporters, and aid agencies must navigate to comply with the various sanctions. While some carveouts amount to standing exemptions, meaning that humanitarian actors do not need to obtain approval to benefit from them, others require humanitarian organizations to apply for authorization, a process that, in such a complex sanctions environment, often delays or impedes swift responses to emergencies and increases the cost and complexity of providing assistance.
Another problem is the “chilling effect” that sanctions can have because of their breadth and the lack of clarity around numerous overlapping legal frameworks and humanitarian carveouts. As a result, private parties and financial institutions often avoid dealing, directly or indirectly, with Syrian individuals or entities even in non-sanctioned sectors.
Sanctions, one aid worker said, have forced many aid groups to base their activities not on needs assessments but risk assessments, threatening their ability to uphold requirements for delivering aid to those most in need and for humanitarian actors not to take sides in a conflict. “Given the increasingly complex nature of today’s humanitarian crises, our ability to uphold these principles is ever more important,” said one aid worker.
Bank “de-risking,” whereby financial institutions terminate or restrict relationships with clients to avoid – rather than manage – compliance risk, is prevalent in regions where sanctions apply, making it difficult for aid groups to transfer funds into the country and to run programs or pay local staff and suppliers even when the transactions are to support activities exempt from sanctions. One aid worker said that 11 or 12 bank accounts for their group were closed because the organization had “Syria” in its name.
While sanctions may not be, as the government often claims, the primary cause of Syria’s worsening economic crisis, they have most likely exacerbated it and hampered aid groups in indirect ways as well. One aid worker said that the most serious effects are in the fuel sector, leading to severe shortages despite legal avenues to purchase fuel for humanitarian purposes.
In January 2023, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that the fuel crisis was having “a pernicious effect on the UN and partners’ ability to continue its work” with most partners in government-held areas reporting reduced site visits, delays in projects, reduced working hours, and reduced field missions in December 2022. It said that critical areas including water, health, shelter, and sanitation were among the most severely affected.
The extent of the direct effects of sanctions on shortages of fuel and medical equipment is difficult to determine given other factors at play, including the global economic downturn, the government’s widespread and systematic destruction of vital infrastructure throughout the war, including health facilities, government corruption, and the government’s loss of access to oil fields in the northeast.
The US sanctions regime in Syria involves several US government agencies. The State Department plays a role in the development of US sanctions policy toward Syria; the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is responsible for implementing and enforcing US sanctions on Syria; and the Commerce Department is responsible for enforcing sanctions related to exports and re-exports to Syria.
The US government maintains certain humanitarian carveouts, mostly through OFAC-issued general licenses, which serve as standing exemptions designed to ensure that sanctions do not unduly harm the civilian population and allow for the provision of necessary humanitarian assistance, and through regular licenses that require case-by-case approval.
Standing exemptions allow for otherwise prohibited activities and transactions that UN agencies and nongovernmental groups need to do to, among other things, meet basic needs such as “drought relief, assistance to refugees, internally displaced persons, and conflict victims, food and medicine distribution, and the provision of health services.”
Export control regulations are less permissive, exempting only food and certain medicines, and requiring UN agencies and other groups to obtain specific export licenses to obtain most goods necessary to conduct their operations, including computers, communications devices, passenger vehicles and trucks, basic office equipment and supplies, and medical devices.
Individual or specific licenses, for example, are often required for many dual-use items that can have civilian and military applications and that are often necessary for rehabilitating a war-torn country. Such items include chlorine for water sanitation, which can also be used to make chemical weapons, or heavy machinery for search and rescue efforts and clearing debris but that could also be used in military operations.
Aid groups say it can take six to eight weeks for an exporter to apply for and obtain a US license. On February 17, the Commerce Department announced that it would expedite the process of export license applications for items needed to aid survivors.
Sanction exemptions also allow people in the US to send personal remittances to people in Syria and to donate humanitarian goods to Syrians without needing to apply to the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for a license, as long as they are consistent with OFAC regulations. But aid workers say that these exemptions have not mediated the chilling effect of sanctions, with private entities and banks reluctant to engage with sanctioned countries even when the transactions in question are not sanctioned for fear of unwittingly falling afoul of sanctions regulations.
As one aid worker said, “If private donations being made to us or local Syrian organizations use the word Syria on Paypal for example, they won’t go through. You have to ask individual donors not to include mention of Syria.”
In June 2021, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, OFAC issued a general license authorizing the export to Syria of services related to the prevention, diagnosis, or treatment of Covid-19 and all its related transactions and activities to certain entities including the Syrian government, as already existing humanitarian carve-outs were simply not sufficient to deal with a pandemic response.
In May 2022, it issued another general license that broadly authorizes transactions in specified regions of northeast and northwest Syria not controlled by the Assad regime in a variety of economic sectors, including agriculture, finance, power grid infrastructure, construction, water and waste management, and health services. A State Department news release said that General License 22 was issued in support of the Biden Administration’s strategy to defeat ISIS by promoting economic stabilization in areas it previously controlled.
However, should the impact of this license be that Syrians in non-regime areas get access to essential protections of fundamental rights such as food, housing, water, and health, whereas others are denied them purely on the basis of where in Syria they live, it risks creating or exacerbating discrimination in upholding economic rights.
In December 2022, in a landmark decision, the UN Security Council adopted a blanket humanitarian exemption to asset freeze measures imposed by all UN sanctions regimes, including counterterrorism measures. In an effort to implement the UN resolution, OFAC issued new general licenses and amended existing ones to support the conduct of US government and humanitarian-related activities across a number of sanctions programs, including in OFAC sanctions programs that implement UN sanctions regimes.
EU sanctions on Syria, on the other hand, only include one standing humanitarian exemption for EU charities operating in Syria to purchase Syrian petroleum products as necessary to enable their activities. Until February 23, when the EU introduced a new temporary humanitarian exemption to facilitate the speedy delivery of humanitarian aid for six months following the earthquakes, prior authorization by EU member states was necessary for all other humanitarian activities, including procurement of medical supplies and other materials needed in healthcare facilities. Because the criteria for approving the applications is not streamlined across EU member states, the process of applying for authorization is considered especially cumbersome.
In May 2020, spurred by the pandemic, the European Commission issued guidance on its Syria sanctions clarifying that “in accordance with International Humanitarian Law where no other option is available, the provision of humanitarian aid should not be prevented by EU restrictive measures,” and encouraging member states to adopt measures to expedite authorizations for humanitarian purposes. Yet it could have taken months to get a response from a member state, one aid worker said, because the authorization system that has since been temporarily waived is “wholly unfit for emergency response.” In one instance, another aid worker said, it took over a year to obtain a formal response from an EU member state. The new exemption, which waives the need for humanitarian groups to seek prior permission from EU member states to make transfers or provide goods and services to sanctioned individuals and entities for humanitarian purposes, expires on August 24.
Some counterterrorism restrictions can affect humanitarian operations in areas controlled by organized armed groups in similar ways to those previously discussed. They include UN Security Council-imposed financial sanctions on designated terrorist groups that prohibit making funds, assets, and economic resources available directly or indirectly to designated groups; a series of thematic Security Council resolutions on counterterrorism; financial sanctions imposed by member states on groups they designate as terrorist; and restrictions imposed by donor states in their funding agreements with humanitarian organizations.
The US, for example, designates opposition groups in northern Syria like HTS as Specially Designated Global Terrorists and Foreign Terrorist Organizations, imposing sanctions on transactions in areas under their control that affect people living there.
Counterterrorism measures are most visible in opposition-held areas in northwest Syria, where HTS, operating alongside other al-Qaeda or the extremist armed group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) affiliated armed groups, maintains control over an area with a large civilian population and massive humanitarian needs. The UN, EU, US, UK, and Turkey have all designated HTS as a terrorist group.
Northwest Syria is home to more than 4.6 million people, at least half of whom have been displaced at least once since the start of the conflict. Civilians in these areas are effectively trapped, lacking resources to relocate, unable to cross into Turkey, and fearing persecution if they attempt to relocate to government-held areas.
Even before the earthquakes, at least 4.1 million people in northwest Syria were almost entirely reliant on humanitarian aid to survive. That aid is mostly provided through a Security Council-mandated cross-border mechanism from Turkey by UN agencies and their partners on the ground, as well as some international and regional aid groups operating outside of the UN aid regime.
While counterterrorism measures do not prohibit mere contact with designated groups, they require humanitarian groups, banks, and businesses to navigate and comply with measures imposed by various states and entities, often leading to overcompliance for fear of inadvertently violating the restrictions. If found to be in violation of sanctions or counterterrorism measures, aid groups and their staff may face fines or prosecution, as well as the risk of loss of funding.
One aid worker for a group that operates in northwest Syria said that it is often groups on the ground that deliver services to people in need that “face the most scrutiny, and absorb the most risk,” especially in an environment where with rampant aid diversion and theft by various parties to the conflict exists.
Ensuring compliance with the various counterterrorism restrictions is not just time-consuming for aid organizations but also costly, aid workers said, especially as it often requires paying lawyers for advice and to interpret the regulations. “This leaves local organizations again at an inherent disadvantage, as funding channeled to them is focused on direct service delivery alone,” one aid worker said.
The February 6 earthquakes killed 4,191 Syrians in opposition-held areas of northwest Syria, and 394 in government-held areas, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. In all affected areas of war-ravaged Syria, which include Aleppo, Hama, Idlib, and Lattakia governorates, the earthquakes destroyed critical infrastructure and collapsed buildings. Thousands have been left homeless.
As rescue efforts were underway in the first days following the earthquakes, calls for the lifting sanctions mounted, with government officials, civilians in government-held areas, and others claiming that sanctions were stopping much-needed emergency aid supplies from arriving in Syria. However, Russia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, and Iraq had all provided aid supplies and rescue teams to the Syrian government within the first week.
UN agencies, many of which have offices in Damascus, were also able to quickly redirect resources to earthquake-affected areas. In addition to at least eight international search-and-rescue teams, a UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team deployed to support efforts in Aleppo, Hama, and Lattakia. Monetary and in-kind aid began arriving in Damascus and Aleppo within hours of the earthquake. According to a Syrian researcher, by February 15, the Syrian government had received at least 149 cargo aircraft loaded with aid from 25 foreign governments.
Syria was already in the throes of a worsening economic crisis, and fuel, certain medical supplies, and heavy machinery necessary for rubble removal were already in short supply. One Syrian aid worker in Damascus said that because of a shortage in heavy machinery necessary for search and rescue operations but otherwise used for construction, “most people were having to work with simple tools or their bare hands [to rescue others under the rubble].” He said that transporting patients, mostly to Damascus where hospitals are better equipped, depended on the availability of medical equipment, and that there were not enough ambulances or fuel for such lengthy trips.
One aid worker highlighted how non-humanitarian entities vital to the response could not carry out their operations effectively as existing humanitarian carveouts do not apply to them. She offered the example of the local engineering committees set up to assess the level of damage that buildings incurred after the earthquakes not being able to procure the necessary equipment to effectively do so.
Sanctions generally make it difficult for UN agencies and aid groups to quickly and effectively scale up their emergency response, aid workers said. In the aftermath of the earthquakes, there were severe problems sending money into the country, both for humanitarian organizations trying to meet emergency needs and for those outside Syria seeking to organize donation drives or to simply send money to their affected families, despite existing humanitarian carve-outs. “We’re trying to send emergency funding to our offices in Syria,” one aid worker said, “but the process is being slowed down by all the documentation and paperwork necessary.”
Days after the earthquakes the US issued a general license authorizing “all transactions related to earthquake relief efforts in Syria that would otherwise be prohibited by the Syrian Sanctions Regulations” for six months.
The UK followed on February 15 by issuing two general licenses, one authorizing humanitarian activities “which would otherwise have been prohibited” and another extending the current humanitarian exception to petroleum prohibitions for UK-funded persons to “all those conducting earthquake relief efforts in Syria and Turkey.” On February 23, the EU followed suit by waiving “the need for humanitarian organizations to seek prior permission from EU member states to make transfers or provide goods and services to sanctioned individuals and entities intended for humanitarian purposes.” Both exemptions are only for six months.
While aid workers said that they welcome these new exemptions, some thought that they were too short in duration to provide incentives to private entities and financial institutions to engage on Syria, and for humanitarian organizations to implement longer term programming that would have previously been all but impossible to carry out, such as rehabilitating damaged homes. In the case of the US and UK exemptions, they are also too narrow as they are specific only to earthquake relief, meaning aid groups could not benefit from them for other critical programming.
A key lingering concern, aid workers said, is the overlap and lack of clarity around the many sanctioning regimes and their humanitarian exemptions. Aid groups working in Syria and in other sanctioned contexts are collectively calling for standing comprehensive humanitarian exemptions across all autonomous sanctions’ regimes.
In the opposition-held northwest, an entirely different scenario was playing out. For an entire week after the earthquakes struck, millions of Syrians in areas of northwest Syria controlled by opposition groups were largely left without access to lifesaving emergency aid, including fuel, food, warm weather supplies, medical supplies, and international search-and-rescue teams and equipment. The earthquakes and aftershocks crippled critical roads and infrastructure, warehouses, and coordination systems needed to deliver aid through the only Security Council-approved UN aid corridor from Turkey into the affected areas.
Despite massive needs and urgent calls for assistance from Syrian Civil Defense, the only volunteer search-and-rescue group operating in opposition-held areas of northwest Syria, UN agencies were reluctant to scale up aid deliveries through border crossings without Security Council or Syrian government approval, and very few countries volunteered to send in teams to aid in search-and-rescue efforts.
None of the aid delivered to government-held areas was redirected to support aid efforts in the northwest, leaving earthquake survivors with only prepositioned, yet dwindling, stockpiles of aid delivered before the earthquake. It was only after President Bashar al-Assad authorized aid to pass through two additional crossings into Syria on February 13 that UN agencies slowly started to pick up aid distribution into opposition-held areas.
Only a few countries and entities including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the Kurdistan region of Iraq sent bilateral aid to northwest Syria within the week of the earthquakes, nowhere near as many countries as mobilized for Turkey and even government-held areas of Syria. Counterterrorism measures may have had a chilling effect on countries that may have otherwise delivered aid.
One aid worker said that the UN’s failure to respond to the earthquake swiftly and decisively may have discouraged countries from sending emergency assistance and search-and-rescue teams directly to the northwest. “UN presence gives credibility and legitimacy to interactions in northwest Syria,” they said.
The additional humanitarian exemptions issued to address earthquake relief only applied to sanctions on the Syrian government and related entities. Similar safeguards for humanitarian action in the wake of the earthquakes have not since been introducedto counterterrorism measures applied to armed groups operating in areas of northwest Syria that were hardest hit.
The discriminatory diversion of aid and essential services by the Syrian government in pursuit of political, economic, and strategic aims remains one of the largest impediments to the equitable distribution of humanitarian supplies and personnel to all parts of Syria.
The government has, over the years, developed a policy and legal framework that allows it to co-opt and divert aid and reconstruction resources to fund its atrocities, punish those perceived as opponents, and benefit those loyal to it. In a 2019 report, Human Rights Watch found that the government restricts the access of humanitarian organizations to communities that need or allegedly receive aid, selectively approves aid projects, and imposes onerous requirements to partner with security-vetted local actors. The requirements often mean that the aid is siphoned through the abusive state apparatus to punish civilian populations it perceives as opponents, reward those it perceives as loyal or who can serve its interests, and to enrich powerful individuals within the ruling elite. There are several concrete measures that humanitarian organizations, UN agencies, donors, and corporations can take to act responsibly within this difficult context, including by improving their human rights due diligence capacities.
The Syrian government also has a history of obstructing aid to non-government held areas of Syria, often insisting that all aid should be going through Damascus and that aid delivered into areas not under its control from neighboring countries violates its sovereignty. In 2014, in response to the government’s persistent refusal to give the UN and other aid agencies permission to deliver aid to areas not under government control, the Security Council provided UN agencies with the political cover to bring supplies from Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan into Syria. But by 2020, Russia, Syria’s main ally and a party to the conflict, had forced the council to shut down three of the four previously authorized border crossings, leaving one border crossing point with Turkey as the only UN-coordinated option for aid groups. In the wake of the devastating earthquakes that also impacted the aid coordination hub for northwest Syria based in southern Turkey, deadly aid delays borne out of the politicization of the cross-border delivery of aid, including by the civilian government affiliated with HTS, the dominant armed group that controls a portion of northwest Syria, left people in the region struggling with the devastation without adequate support.
Sanctions should not be used as a punitive tool but rather should have a deterrent or corrective impact. They need to be attached to clear and implementable conditions to end ongoing abuses, with clear benchmarks for removing sanctions and regular monitoring.
While the Caesar Act, for example, includes a set of conditions for lifting the sanctions, they are not tied to measurable and attainable goals. Gradual but concrete progress to halt the human rights abuses in question, such as the release of unlawfully held detainees, may be more effective. The more specific and actionable the conditions are, the more effective sanctions would be. The designations should also explicitly indicate the sanctionable behavior, and the sanctioning authority should regularly review whether the sanctionable behavior continues.
Sanctions can, and do, have a direct or indirect negative impact on people’s rights, especially those who are most vulnerable. In Iran, for example, Human Rights Watch found that broad sanctions against Iranian banks and aggressive rhetoric has resulted in overcompliance that has gravely undermined Iranians’ right to health and access to basic services.
Human Rights Watch opposes sanctions that have a disproportionately negative impact on human rights or create unnecessary suffering. In November 2022, three UN experts on unilateral coercive measures, human rights and international solidarity, and the right to food called the humanitarian exemptions in sanctions regimes “ineffective and inefficient” and that the “structural and application inconsistencies of such humanitarian exemptions have seriously affected the work and conduct of humanitarian operators.”
Effective and functional humanitarian exemptions are essential to ensure that sanctions’ spillover effects are mitigated. The sanctioning authority should provide clear guidelines so that humanitarian agencies and those involved in transactions for humanitarian purposes understand how these exemptions work and the process for using them. The sanctioning authority should also have the resources necessary to quickly respond to and process authorization requests and to mitigate the chilling effect of sanctions.
Sanctioning authorities should regularly and widely consult with aid agencies on the operation of exemptions. Aid groups and other agencies involved in providing essential aid to Syria should also be explicit about how sanctions affect their operations. Humanitarian exemptions should also go far enough to address the secondary and tertiary effects of sanctions, where clear evidence of a causal relationship can be established. For example, there may not be an explicit prohibition on the export of medical supplies, but a ban on financial transactions that prevents companies or entities in the US from accepting funding from Syrian entities looking to purchase medical supplies can harm efforts to secure necessary medicine.
Aid workers with humanitarian organizations operating in Syria listed several reforms to sanctions and counterterrorism measures by countries and entities imposing sanctions to facilitate the principled, speedy, and efficient delivery of humanitarian aid to communities in need, including:
- Permanently extending the humanitarian exemptions introduced following the February 2023 eartquakes;
- Coordinating to aligning and streamlining humanitarian exemptions across all sanctions regimes, counterterrorism measures, and export controls;
- Allowing the exemptions framework to cover local humanitarian organizations as well as UN agencies and international aid organizations;
- Covering all activities necessary for aid efforts including those required for repairing or rebuilding essential civilian infrastructure instead of providing a timebound framework limited to the earthquake response;
- Creating an outreach campaign that publicly assures financial institutions and private entities that they will not be penalized for supporting relief and recovery efforts and encourages the private sector to expedite transactions related to humanitarian activities.