Only one day after the inauguration, 95 Christian leaders appealed to the new U.S. President Joe Biden to lift economic sanctions against Syria:
“Millions of hard-pressed Syrians will go to bed hungry and cold tonight. Unilateral coercive measures imposed by the United States make the economic plight of the Syrian people worse. We urge you, Mr. President, to help Syrians to alleviate a humanitarian crisis that threatens to trigger a new wave of instability in the Middle East and beyond by implementing the UN Special Rapporteur’s recommendation.”
The signees refer to the statements of United Nations Special Rapporteur Alena Douhan who had already called on the U.S. government to lift the sanctions against Syria in December 2020. Like Douhan the signees fear that especially the Covid-19 crisis threatens Syria’s health system and economy.
95 signees from Church, aid organizations, science and politics
Among the 95 signees are both the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch Joseph I. Absi and the Syriac Catholic Patriarch of Antioch Ignatius Joseph III. Younan as well as the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch Ignatius Ephräm II Karim. Several aid organizations such as SOS Chrétiens d’Orient, Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, International Society of Oriental Christians and Christian Solidarity International (CSI) have also signed. Furthermore there are several former Ambassadors, politicians, scientists, bishops and pastors from various Christian denominations.
In spring 2011, the U.S. and the EU had imposed economic sanctions against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The same year anti-government protests escaladed to a civil war. In this war jihadist rebel groups, supported by Western governments, ISIS and various local groups fight against each other and against the Syrian government.
The war has already killed up to half a million people and pressured around 12 million people to flee from their homes. The sanctions against the government were imposed because of alleged war crimes against Syrian civilians.
Sanctions only punish Syrian civilians
But their effect were repeatedly doubted – even by American experts such as former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert S. Ford, former United Nations Under-Secretary-General Jeffrey D. Feltman and former U.S. National Security Council senior director for the Middle East and North Africa Steven Simon. The critics claim the sanctions would not overthrow the Syrian government, but punish the civil population.
The sanctions make it almost impossible for international aid organizations to bring funds to Syria for humanitarian projects. Banks would refuse to make transactions. IBAN and SWIFT codes would block transactions, which are related to Syria or Syrian cities. Even transfers to the Syro-Malabar Church in India are sometimes blocked simply because they contain the word “Syro”. One bank in Germany advised “Aid to the Church in Need” not to try to transfer money to Syria too often. Otherwise they would be put on a list.
Difficulties for aid organizations
Moreover, ACN stated, that the price of imported goods has drastically increased, while the average monthly wage in Syria has dropped from 150 to 55 U.S. Dollar. The sanctions would have installed several regulations and bureaucratic obstacles, which make ACN’s work in Syria very difficult. A huge problem would be the massive malnutrition of infants and young childre: A can of milk currently costs 3,000 Syrian pounds. This is almost impossible to afford considering the average monthly wage of 30,000 Syrian pounds.
Nevertheless, Western governments did not change their policy. Instead, in summer of 2020 the U.S. government passed the “Caesar Act”, which is intended to target individuals and companies doing business in Syria. The Syrian government criticized the measures as “economic terrorism”.
The survival of Syria’s people is at stake
In an interview with the German Catholic newspaper „Die Tagespost” the Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III. Younan explains: “Sanctions against an independent country must always be prohibited; especially when there is no consensus within the United Nations, as there was in Syria’s case. Not only were the rights of a nation at stake, but literally the survival of its people. (…) For years, the living situation in Syria has become very oppressive. The vast majority of citizens, mostly poor and marginalized, do not have the means to provide food, heating fuel or medicine for their families. Inflation and the incredible decline of the currency have exacerbated the humanitarian crisis.”
Peter Fuchs agrees with the Patriarch. The Catholic priest and director of CSI Germany has signed the open letter to President Biden, too: “The extensive economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and EU are preventing the reconstruction of Syria, leading to dramatic famine and impoverishment of the entire population.”
Also Stefan Maier, project coordinator of the German Initiative Christian Orient (ICO), criticizes the sanctions: „They failed to topple the Syrian regime through their covert actions and military aid to insurgent groups, which was a million-dollar debacle. Now they want to harm Syria in any way they can.“
German government refuses to end sanctions
Yet the German government‘s commissioner for worldwide religious freedom Markus Grübel has already confirmed the sanctions: “The foreign policy line of the German government does not provide for cooperation with the Syrian regime, as Germany does not want to send a sign of normalization to Assad. Projects in areas controlled by the Syrian regime are therefore not supported within the framework of German development cooperation.”
It seems to be very likely that the new U.S. administration’s stance is very similiar. Nevertheless the open letter to President Biden may at least raise international awareness regarding the worsening situation in Syria.