Middle East Politics & Diplomacy Syria
MENASource January 13, 2023

US sanctions on Syria aren’t working. It’s time for a new sanctions approach that minimizes humanitarian suffering and increases leverage.

By Karam Shaar and Said Dimashqi

Eleven years after the eruption of the Syrian uprising in 2011 and the subsequent conflict, the United States’ Syria policy has constrained political pressure on the Bashar al-Assad regime to broad economic sanctions. But, despite an expansive approach that targets entire economic sectors, these sanctions have had little to no effect in pushing the regime to offer political concessions, engage meaningfully in a peaceful settlement of the conflict, or improve its human rights record. All the while, conditions in Syria have steadily worsened, as sanctions—along with the destructive effects of eleven years of conflict, the economic crisis in neighboring Lebanon, and the COVID-19 pandemic—have fueled an economic collapse that has left more than 90 percent of the population living in poverty.

This deadlock has led many critics to argue for scenarios in which the United States helps resolve the Syrian conflict by offering concessions to the regime and its backers, Russia and Iran, in exchange for reasonable political reforms. However, concessions must be a last resort when dealing with a regime with an extensive record of human rights violations. Before making concessions, the United States can increase its leverage in Syria by dedicating resources to make use of the smart sanctions that US policymakers have already developed.

Since listing Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1979, the US has pursued sanctions as a primary tool in its policy towards the country. The George W. Bush administration issued a series of sanctions under executive orders aiming to limit Syria’s destabilizing influence in Iraq. However, after the 2011 uprising, the Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations sanctioned the Assad regime on an unprecedented scale for its gross human rights violations against its people. These sanctions culminated in the passing of the Caesar Act in 2019, which allows primary and secondary sanctions targeting both those who commit sanctionable offenses and those who enable them.

The United States has already developed the tools to make its sanctions smarter, like introducing secondary sanctions under the Caesar Act. However, to this day, the Caesar Act has only been used against four Syrians—Wassim al-Qattan, Khaled al-Zubaidi, Nizar Jamaleddin and Nader Kalai —for committing sanctionable offenses—and one of them is dead (Nader Kalai). Failing to use the act’s secondary sanctions is indefensible, especially because its passage has contributed to economic and humanitarian collapse in the country. Syrians simply cannot afford the cost of ineffective sanctions.

Ideally, sanctions serve two functions. The first is to change the behavior of the target and its enablers, like elements of the Syrian regime involved in the suppression of peaceful protests or companies that might conduct business with sanctioned targets. One of the very few examples of this is the two companies based in Switzerland: Blue Marine Shipping Agency and Skirron Holding AG, which were delisted from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctions after they stopped shipping oil to the regime. The second function is to deter future rights abuses, either by the same actor, the Assad regime, or by other regimes that think they can commit violations without facing punishment. Nevertheless, despite the failure of sanctions to achieve these two core functions, Western governments largely kept them in place. This suggests that sanctions may serve another function: convincing the world and electorates that Western governments care about Syria and are acting upon their commitment to hold the Syrian regime accountable.

This inward-looking function of sanctions has produced no tangible results for Syrians, leading critics to believe that the only way for the United States to re-engage with Syria is by offering concessions. 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. Precisely because they have destabilizing effects on local economies, sanctions must be utilized in a way that targets the parties they are designed to target.

In Syria, these targets evade sanctions through multiple tools, including vessel name changes and the use of shell companies with complex ownership structures. This leaves civilians and small-to-midsize businesses bearing the burden of sanctions, making the task of constantly monitoring and tracking the regime’s evasion tools ever more crucial. Currently, however, both US and EU sanctions suffer from various flaws that compromise their effectiveness and, therefore, their potential to help bring a political end to the conflict. This includes erroneous background information on targeted individuals, the misspelling of names, sanctioning of irrelevant or unknown people, and the lack of coordination with local and foreign partners.

The United States already has the laws and policies it needs to increase its leverage in Syria before making any concessions. These include making use of secondary sanctions that serve as a necessary and effective deterrent, working with Syrians to review and correct sanction listings to include shell companies that are revealed to be serving the Assad regime, and coordinating with partners in Europe to cross-check information and share intelligence. These tools should replace the sanctioning of entire sectors, such as the financial sector, which harms civilians and the humanitarian response while imposing virtually no cost on a regime that has become skilled at evading them. These sector-wide sanctions can be lifted in exchange for whatever concessions can be squeezed out of the Assad regime.

The common denominator among all these recommendations is to take Syria more seriously and dedicate more resources to minimize the unintended negative consequences of sanctions. Given the countless heartbreaking stories of Syrians unable to access necessities, partly because of economic sanctions, the United States must minimize their suffering while more effectively targeting the repressive regime that perpetuates their misery.

Dr. Karam Shaar is an independent consultant focused on Syria’s political economy and a non-resident scholar in the Middle East Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @Karam__Shaar.

Said Dimashqi is a pseudonym for a crisis analyst in a humanitarian aid organization, where he specializes in global conflict and economic trends. He previously collaborated with the United Nations on assessing the effects of sanctions regimes on humanitarian action. Said was granted anonymity to offer candid observations about Syria.

Further reading

Image: A woman walks past a poster depicting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as she carries a bag of clothes for donation to people in need in Damascus, Syria November 11, 2022. REUTERS/Firas Makdesi