Peter Oborne is a columnist for Middle East Eye. His books include Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan. Kamal Alam writes and teaches on Syrian affairs, he lectures at several army staff colleges in the Arab world.
Too often, sanctions are the coward’s way out.
On the one hand, politicians are unwilling to take strong action – such as troops on the ground – that will force through the changes they want.
On the other hand, they are eager to be seen to be doing something.
So they slap on sanctions. And once a country has been sanctioned, politicians are reluctant to remove them for fear of being seen as weak.
We’ve seen this again and again. Think of the commercial and financial embargo on Cuba which has been going strong since 1958.
Iran is another long-running case in point. And it is notoriously the case that the people who really suffer from sanctions are almost never the political and financial elites, who can find plenty of ways of surviving and even prospering from sanctions. It’s the ordinary people.
As the world’s leading economies struggle to cope with the worst pandemic since the Spanish Flu, it is time the UK fundamentally re-examined its approach to sanctions on Syria.
France and Germany have actually by-passed US sanctions to provide much needed medical aid to Iran. But the country that probably needs most assistance, even without taking into the current pandemic, is Syria. Its long suffering civilians are not just recovering from a devastating nine year war. They now have economic hardships coupled with a crippled health care system made worse by sanctions.
It is time that these punitive sanctions are put to an end to alleviate the suffering of the common Syrian. It is clear that in Syria what is needed most is for education and healthcare to recover. But financial sanctions on even the most basic transactions make life unbearable.
To be clear: we are not advocating an end to all sanctions. We emphatically do not support any lifting of the arms embargo (for any party in Syria) and would not lift the sanctions targeted on individuals for egregious human rights abuses.
Nor do we support the lifting of sanctions on the majority of the institutions already sanctioned – unless it can be demonstrated that they are required for delivery of key humanitarian objectives. It is the sanctions that prevent ordinary Syrians from accessing humanitarian aid and economic opportunities that we would wish to see lifted.
The war is all but over across most of Syria. By a vicious paradox, living conditions for many ordinary Syrians have got worse. A key issue in terms of the crash of the Syrian economy is recent events in Lebanon. This cannot be underestimated.
Syrians on the ground are in most need of help, suffering from ailments beyond the immediate scope of war, including cancer, diabetes, the resuscitation of diseases that had once been eradicated, such as smallpox and tuberculosis that have hit both young and old.
Recent UAE and Kuwaiti healthcare aid to Syria has helped the hospitals in Damascus, but it is not nearly enough. Similarly, David Beasley, director of the World Food Program, has repeatedly said the world must help Syrians in Syria as the best way to tackle the overall crisis.
And whilst American and British officials insist that healthcare is not targeted, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it is being indirectly effected. The European Council for Foreign Relations (ECFR) has published a detailed report arguing that there must be a new way that helps Syrians suffering due to the economic hardships, and this way should include easing of some sanctions which are linked to helping ordinary Syrians.
In Damascus, financial sanctions hinder payments for any healthcare imports. And that’s before we get to the difficulty in getting hold of them. We’re told that many hospitals and healthcare centres are out of action and need urgent reconstruction.
We’re also told that diagnostic equipment are missing vital parts, or their life span has expired. Ventilators and laboratory equipment and the reagents they use to provide a pathological diagnosis of the referred cases are all lacking.
Endoscopies, cardiac catheters and coronary stents and the renal dialysis facilities are all suffering due to sanctions.
Even the private hospitals that can afford these repairs can’t garner them because no one wants to sell them the aforementioned equipment due to the fear of sanctions repercussions.
Doctors cannot attend regional conferences because of visa restrictions and could not subscribe to scientific journals as they are unable to pay the registration fee or the subscription fee as a result and because of the financial sanctions.
Recent statements claimed that humanitarian aids and healthcare equipment and requirements are not included in the sanctions list. How would you pay for them? Again, financial sanctions prevent them from doing so and therefore the exemptions they claim become irrelevant.
The purpose of this article is not a political point-scoring exercise. What we are arguing is the need to work in a way to help the suffering of the Syrians as it stands today.
David Davis, the former Brexit Secretary – who visited Damascus in 2016 and wrote about the experience for ConservativeHome – said we must come to a workable solution to end the destruction, and, at the very least, he argued that, from what he saw, the state is able to survive, and so the West must look at the easing of the suffering of those distant from politics.
Davis is certainly no Assad apologist. Similarly, Roger Tomkys, a former Ambassador to Syria and now Master at Pembroke College, Cambridge, told us that: “Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Syrian conflict, the motives and humanitarian crimes on all sides, it is now clear that the Damascus regime has won, will remain in control of the great majority of the country and must play a major part in its physical and political rebuilding.”
“It is high time for all who care for the victims of this human disaster to work for an end to the fighting, and first steps toward reconciliation and repatriation. The West should not leave it to regional powers and Russia but play their part. Lifting sanctions is an important step in engagement with Damascus to that end.”
Another former Ambassador to Syria that we spoke to, Henry Hogger, said that whilst he did not support lifting sanctions on Syria as a way to reward its government or the Russians, “there must be a workable solution, and Coronavirus awards an opportunity where a practical solution to work together can be reached beginning with the healthcare and charitable sector where allowances can be made for goods to be delivered.”
Two other former Ambassadors to Syria, Andrew Green and Peter Ford, recently signed a letter to the Times calling for a lifting of sanctions. Bob Bowker, a promiment former Australian Ambassador to Syria and Masaki Kuneida, a former Japanese Ambassador to Syria. have also called for a need to work with the Syrian government to help the suffering on the ground.
These are people who know the situation and have been to Syria. They all call for sanctions relief of some kind. Too often it’s those in offices in London, Beirut or Washington who disagree.