US’ Syria sanctions exemption driven more by political motives than humanitarian ones
Published: Feb 13, 2023 08:17 PM
Residents search for victims and survivors amidst the rubble of a collapsed building in the town of Jableh, northwest of the Syrian capital Damascus, on February 8, 2023. Photo: AFP

Residents search for victims and survivors amidst the rubble of a collapsed building in the town of Jableh, northwest of the Syrian capital Damascus, on February 8, 2023. Photo: AFP

Millions of people in Syria and Turkey have suffered from the devastating earthquake that recently rattled their region, with more than 33,000 having already been confirmed killed. This natural disaster has shocked the world due to the scale and scope of the destruction left in its aftermath. Accordingly, international aid has begun to stream in, though the Syrian authorities have been shunned by most Western countries. 

The US-led West imposed unilateral sanctions upon the UN-recognized Syrian government early into its over decade-long civil war that they themselves had a hand in fueling. These measures were meant to pressure President Bashar al-Assad into complying with their political demands, making a blatant example of foreign countries meddling into Syria's domestic affairs which sought to terminate his government. They failed to turn the majority of the population against him, however, but they have still remained in place to this day, in spite of that. 

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning suggested on February 8 that "In the wake of the catastrophe, the US should put aside geopolitical obsessions and immediately lift the unilateral sanctions on Syria, to unlock the doors for humanitarian aid to Syria." This stance is aligned with international law, humanitarian and moral. 

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced on February 9 that "the humanitarian crisis in northwestern Syria was already worsening, with needs at their highest level since the conflict began." He stressed, "this is a moment in which everybody must make very clear that no sanctions of any kind interfere with relief to the population of Syria in the present moment."

Continuing to unilaterally impose sanctions outside the authority of the United Nations Security Council only perpetuates Syrians' suffering. Clinging to the failed policy of punishing average people through economic means, which is done with the intent of encouraging them to turn against their government and thus advance America's foreign policy goals, is counterproductive from the standpoint of the US' objective interests after such disasters. 

Under huge pressure from the international community, the US Treasury late on February 9 announced a 180-day exemption to its sanctions on Syria for "all transactions related to earthquake relief efforts."

From the standpoint of US interests, this development can help improve the targeted population's perception of it, making them believe Washington is tangibly relieving some of their suffering. Keeping the sanctions in place would generate deeper resentment since people would begin to feel that the US wants them to cruelly suffer as additional punishment for failing to turn against their government up until this point. Instead of advancing US interests, that policy would have thus further eroded them.  

Upon selectively and temporarily lifting its sanctions against Syria in response to that country's natural disaster, it's possible that the US is establishing a new precedent. If another sanctioned country experiences a similar disaster, the US might therefore selectively and temporarily relieve its sanctions too on the pretext of facilitating the shipment of aid. This doesn't mean that a breakthrough is guaranteed to follow, but each side would benefit by at least giving that scenario a chance. It makes perfect sense for Washington to explore this possibility at this precise time since there's never been a better one to do so. 

To summarize, the US' decision to selectively and temporarily lift its sanctions against Syria is likely driven more by political pragmatism than humanitarian motives. Washington is aiming to alleviate international pressure on it and improving Syrian people's perception of the US. It remains to be seen whether Washington is also possibly creating the political opportunity for resuming talks with Syrian leadership. In any case, US' decision was made out of ulterior political motives rather than the humanitarian ones that it claimed. 

The author is a Moscow-based American political analyst. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn