Another kind of war: Unilateral economic sanctions damage Syria


Karin Leukefeld کارین لویکفلد
Translated by  John Catalinotto


At the beginning of December, the Conference of Germany’s State Interior Ministers extended the ban on deportations to Syria without restrictions until at least June 2020. Originally, the interior ministers at their autumn meeting in Lübeck planned to relax the ban and allow deportations of serious criminals. During the conference, however, a gloomy picture of Syria was painted. The country “is anything but safe,” declared a church aid organisation.

Even without sanctions enough shaken: The economy in devastated Syria (Manbidsj, 10.5.2018)


There were “hardly any education or training opportunities and few prospects of finding work and earning an income.” The health system was “at rock bottom”, there was not “enough intact housing.”

A Nov. 20 report by the Foreign Office addressed to the conference stated that there were “no safe areas for returnees.” It said that attacks by “the regime” were possible anywhere and at any time, with the exception of areas currently under Turkish or Kurdish control or controlled by the USA.

Contrary to what politicians and the media have described, however, the war has largely come to a standstill, except in Idlib and other areas in the north of the country. A different kind of war is now raging, however, due to the unilateral economic punitive measures of the European Union and an oil embargo by the USA — an economic war

Willing to return

Nevertheless, tens of thousands of people are still determined to return to Syria. They are coming from Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and Syrians now living in Europe also plan to return to their homeland. A report by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in October 2019 states that 75,501 refugees “spontaneously” returned between January and September of this year. It is likely this is a minimum estimate.

For 2019, an “increase in self-organised returns” is expected, although this presents a challenge, the report says. The UNHCR is trying to help by repairing shelters and providing legal assistance, subsistence and education. “The growing demands for support for returnees,” however, required more commitment from all the involved parties.

But the rich UN member states from Europe, the USA or the Gulf States are providing no support. The government in Damascus gets more and more isolated, and after all the war damage now the unilateral EU economic sanctions are destroying the Syrian economy. These sanctions were first imposed on Syria’s oil sector in 2011. Since then the sanctions have been repeatedly tightened and extended annually, most recently in May 2019 until June 1, 2020.

Currently, 269 persons and 69 institutions and companies are on the sanctions list. They are subject to a ban on entering the European Union, and personal assets in European banks have been frozen. The pretext for the sanctions is that these entities are responsible for violence and repression against the civilian population in Syria and benefit from “support for the regime and/or being associated with persons or institutions of the regime.”

In addition to the entire Syrian government, on the list are military personnel, business people and their companies. These include  Syrian Arab Airlines, the mobile phone provider Syriatel, the renowned daily newspaper Al-Watan, and all Syrian oil production companies and banks, including the Central Bank. Even the Syrian tobacco and cotton marketing organisations are subject to sanctions because they are state institutions.

Reconstruction made difficult

The unilateral punitive measures have a devastating effect, especially since they are linked to the U.S. oil embargo, which is also unilateral. In Aleppo, the businessmen of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry are bound by the sanctions.

They “prevent us from building our companies and creating jobs,” said a businessman in Aleppo in an interview with Junge Welt. Instead, Europe is sending aid organizations to Syria: “They give us bread, but no work. People become dependent instead of living in dignity. Every worker we would hire would be able to feed his family himself.”

Only the UN Security Council has the authority to impose punitive measures on a country. Therefore, unilateral sanctions are contrary to international law. ldriss Jazairy, the UN Special Rapporteur in charge, has stated this legal concept time and again. The majority of the UN member states reject unilateral sanctions, but the rich Western states take the law into their own hands, he said, thus aggravating the danger of war internationally.

On Nov. 21 the Second Committee on Economic and Financial Affairs at the United Nations addressed the question of the legality of unilateral sanctions. Sixteen draft resolutions were submitted and two were adopted.

Among them was one calling on the “international community” to condemn unilateral economic, financial or trade sanctions because they prevented countries’ development. Punishments that are not authorised by UN bodies must be suspended. Such measures are incompatible with international law and contradict the basic principle of the multilateral economic system.

The resolution was approved by 116 UN member states, two states − the USA and Israel − voted against it. Fifty-two states, among them all EU states including Germany, abstained.