As Ordinary Syrians Struggle, Sanctions Have Been Turned Into Punishment

U.S.-imposed sanctions on the Syrian regime mostly hurt ordinary citizens, 90 percent of whom live below the poverty line with the average salary being about $50 a month

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A child stands in front of a vegetable store inside a camp for displaced people on the outskirts of the rebel-held town of Dana, east of the Turkish-Syrian border in the northwestern Idlib province, in April
A child stands in front of a vegetable store inside a camp for displaced people on the outskirts of the rebel-held town of Dana, east of the Turkish-Syrian border in the northwestern Idlib province, iCredit: AAREF WATAD/AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Syrian citizens have already despaired of the long lines stretching hundreds of meters at the entrances to gas stations. Even when they manage to reach the longed-for gas pump nozzle, they discover that the price for a liter of gasoline has jumped by several percentage points within 24 hours. Reports in Syria media outlets describe consumers’ new “hobby:” Walking in markets and food shops, just to feast their eyes and remember what they can no longer buy.

Cooking oil is sold for $3.75 per liter, rice is 90 cents a kilogram, lentils $1.3 a kilo, and with the average salary being about $50 a month, most will be forced to make do with pita and soup. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, prices have climbed at a rate of between 50 and 100 percent in areas under government control. In the northern and parts of the country, the price of wheat has doubled; most of it is imported from Turkey, which in turns imports 90 percent of its supply from Ukraine.

The closure of ports in southern Ukraine that were captured by Russia, and the challenges of transportation from Russia to Syria, have worsened the shortage of grain arriving in Syria, meaning wheat trade agreements between Russia and Syria are not being implemented. Civilians receiving subsidized food allowances used to sell some in the open market to support themselves; now it’s hard to meet personal needs, let alone saving surpluses for trading.

In the face of public protest, the regime is pointing an accusing finger at the importers and traders who, according to the regime, are exploiting the shortage in order to raise prices. These reply with complaints of their own about the fact that the regime does not allocate subsidized foreign currency to them to enable them to pay for imported goods – and that when the money does arrive, they cannot carry out transfers to Russia due to the sanctions imposed on the banking system.

Farmers growing wheat managed until recently to earn a living by selling their produce to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. But since February, the government has prohibited the export of grain and punished farmers who violate the order with heavy fines.

According to estimates by welfare organizations, over 90 percent of Syrians now live below the poverty line. About 6.9 million civilians have been displaced inside their country, which is divided between areas controlled by the government, areas controlled by the opposition, and the Kurdish regions in the north of the country. There are about 6.6 million Syrian refugees outside the country. UNICEF estimates the number of children outside any educational framework at over 2.6 million, and about 150,000 are orphans.

These horrifying numbers raise the question as to how the country can help a population that appears doomed to hunger and a shortage of medicine. Efforts by international aid agencies are important, but they don’t reach all parts of the country, and in places where they do operate, they cannot meet demand. Only one border crossing is open to aid convoys, and it too is threatened with closure.

Only refugees in Turkey and in European countries, Germany in particular, have received support, work permits and educational frameworks for children and students. In Syria, the government distributes smart cards with which the needy can purchase food, but their value is gradually decreasing as the value of the Syrian lira deteriorates.

Syria is under a heavy sanctions regime imposed by the United States in the context of the sanctions law known as the Caesar Act, after the name given to a Syrian policeman who distributed thousands of videos and documents illustrating the government’s abuse of its citizens. But these sanctions, which forbid any transaction or economic cooperation with the regime, mostly hurt ordinary citizens. 

In another time, the logic of the sanctions could be understood as a lever to encourage civil rebellion against the regime. Now, with the rebellion having ended in failure, and Syrian President Bashar Assad having resumed rule over most parts of the country, the sanctions have been transformed from a means of pressure to a punishment.

But apparently, the U.S. government also understands that this punishment doesn’t bother Assad’s regime. Last month, the U.S. State Department published a detailed report about the extent of the Assad family’s private wealth, which indicates that Assad is in possession of capital estimated at $1 billion to $2 billion. Syria experts believe that these are unrealistic figures, as the report itself notes that the value of the assets of Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin, is estimated at over $5 billion.

These assets have been transferred to the possession of the state, namely to Assad, after Makhlouf was ousted from his business and detained due to a business conflict with Asma Assad, the president’s wife; according to the report, she is in possession of assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars, through her control of the Al Bustan charity, which is her representation at Syriatel, the largest communications company in Syria.

Asma Assad also established the EmmaTel communications company, and operates the company that distributed the smart ration cards. The president’s brother, Maher Assad, runs the drug smuggling businesses that have netted the family billions of dollars. An investigation published by the Middle East Research Institute revealed that in 2021 Syrian-made amphetamine pills worth about $6 billion were seized – twice the amount seized a year earlier. The institute estimated that the actual extent of the Syrian drug trade totals about $17 billion.

This money is, of course, not designated to help balance the state budget or pay for the needs of citizens. Even worse, the aid money received by the country, whether in cash or in goods, must be approved by the regime, which takes a sizable cut. The result is that the regime benefits not only from illegal sources of profit, but skims off part of the money that comes from United Nations aid agencies and donations from other countries, without the sanctions causing any trouble.

Another window of economic opportunity has opened to Assad with the renewal of diplomatic ties between Syria and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, which he recently visited for the first time since the outbreak of the civil rebellion in 2011.

According to reports from the UAE, the country even intends to invest in Syria, in violation of the sanctions law. Although this has not yet begun, if it is decided to restore Syria’s its seat in the Arab League, thereby granting Arab legitimacy to Assad, we can predict that the pipeline of money and investments will also reopen. This important breakthrough is likely to come from Turkey, of all places, which until now has boycotted Assad and his regime and demanded his removal.

Turkey’s foreign minister confirmed in April that the two countries are involved in contacts designed to reach an agreement about returning Syrian refugees from Turkey, which is hosting about 4 million of them.

If such an agreement is really signed, millions of Syrian refugees will return to what is left of their homes, but will impose a heavy economic burden on the regime and will obligate the international community, particularly the U.S., to examine ways of providing assistance in a regulated fashion, and not only through charities and NGOs. In the face of such a development, there will be no way of avoiding a reexamination of the sanctions policy in general, and ties with the Assad regime specifically.

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