Position on Syria Sanctions in the Aftermath of the Turkiye-Syria Earthquake
Early February 6, 2023, a series of earthquakes as strong as 7.8 in magnitude hit southern Turkiye with shockwaves that radiated into northern Syria, collapsing buildings and killing more than 21,000 people. The death toll is expected to rise dramatically as the window for a successful search and rescue narrows, and the disaster is anticipated to need a long-term humanitarian aid response. Northwestern Syria, the last opposition-held area, was already decimated by years of bombings by the Assad regime and Russia and is host to millions of internally displaced Syrians, many of whom have once again lost their homes.
In response to the catastrophic situation, there have been calls by organizations and prominent figures on social media to lift sanctions on the Assad regime. This is misguided at best and malicious at worst. The American Coalition for Syria (ACS) strongly opposes lifting sanctions on the Assad regime and believes that calls to do so distract from the immediate needs and realities on the ground. As representatives of 11 Syrian American and Syria-focused organizations, we care deeply about the Syrian people, and our mission is to advocate on their behalf. We are closest to the pain and have many family members and friends in Turkiye and Syria who have been displaced, injured, or killed in the last 48 hours.
Sanctions against Assad and his cronies do not apply to any humanitarian assistance and have not hindered the delivery of such assistance, even to regime-held areas. Since the conflict began, international aid has primarily been channeled through the United Nations, which coordinates with the Syrian regime. Nonetheless, on February 9, 2023, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control issued a Syria General License 23 which "authorizes for 180 days all transactions related to earthquake relief that would be otherwise prohibited by the Syrian Sanctions Regulations." This license renders any discussion about sanctions lifting moot as it waives sanctions altogether for 6 months. On the other hand, the Assad regime weaponizes aid by prohibiting it from reaching those who do not live in areas under its control and it has starved cities that refuse to surrender. We would like to clarify that the suffering of the Syrian people was not caused by sanctions that were put in place to limit Assad’s ability to finance his killing machine, but rather, it was caused by the regime itself.
For 12 years, the regime of Bashar al-Assad and his allies in Iran and Russia have inflicted devastating suffering and pain upon the Syrian people. Many of the voices now calling for the lifting of sanctions never stood up for the rights of the Syrian people and often excused or ignored the crimes of their tormentors. Generous people of the world, including in the United States, have supported humanitarian efforts to alleviate this suffering, knowing that such suffering could not possibly be stopped as long as this murderous regime and its backers were allowed to carry on their atrocities with impunity.
Those seeking to be true allies of the Syrian people should direct support to the localities in northern Syria that are conducting round-the-clock recovery efforts. A list of such organizations can be found here. Heroic groups such as the Syrian Civil Defence organization known as the White Helmets are digging victims out despite being targeted by Assad and Russia throughout the conflict. Calling for the lifting of sanctions on a regime that is the primary culprit for the destruction of Syria is an insult to its victims and will not make a difference in the lives of the people who urgently need our support today.