Do I Support the US Sanctions on My Country?

Date: 27 July 2020

Thousands of pictures, leaked by a Syrian defector nicknamed “Caesar,” revealed the extent of torture and extrajudicial killings in the prisons of the Bashar al-Assad regime. In response to those abuses, on June 17, 2020, the United States targeted that regime with sanctions under the Caesar Civilian Protection Act. The US set out a list of political and humanitarian demands to be met for the sanctions to be lifted.

In considering whether the sanctions are good for my country, I need to first establish why I do not believe the US had the interest of Syrian civilians at heart when it imposed the Caesar Civilian Protection Act. Had the US cared about me, it would have allowed me to see my father for the last time after he died in California in 2018. A blanket travel ban on Syrians, along with other nationalities, had been introduced in 2017.

The US intervened militarily in my country in September 2014 to defeat ISIS—not to stop al-Assad’s atrocities. Fadel Abdul Ghany, the Chairman of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, told me in an email that prior to the US intervention, 167,158 civilian casualties of the conflict were perpetrated by the Syrian regime, compared with 861 by ISIS (nearly 0.5% of total casualties). Remember that the Caesar pictures related to the period prior to the US intervention.

The US Special Representative to Syria, James Jeffery, recently said, "[Syria] isn't a quagmire. My job is to make it a quagmire for the Russians." Even if you do believe that protecting civilians is on the US agenda, you can safely argue that it is not a priority. Admittedly, the US does tend to care much more than al-Assad and his allies when it comes to avoiding civilian casualties in its policies and military interventions. However, the comparison I am making here is not between bad and terrible.

The first question to ask in assessing the sanctions is whether they hurt the civilians. The answer to this question is the same to does the sun rise from the east? A case in point is when the US withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 and re-imposed sanctions, while European governments decided to uphold it. Sticking to the deal was not enough to maintain economic ties, however—European businesses sharply reduced their engagement with Iran, fearing secondary US sanctions.

Businesses tend to have a phobia about dealing with US-sanctioned countries. Proving compliance with humanitarian exemptions in US sanctions is costly and risky. Exchange rates tend to depreciate due to sanctions, making all imports more expensive—bullets and medicine alike.

Will they hurt the regime? Sanctions make everybody poorer, including the ruling class. But being poorer does not automatically result in being ready to negotiate. Earlier experience suggests that authoritarian regimes grow more belligerent when targeted by sanctions. Think of North Korea, Iran, Sudan, and Venezuela.

However, the sample size of countries historically targeted by sanctions is so tiny and heterogenous you should not draw generalizations from it. Other countries affected by sanctions had either the financial support or the resources to sustain a prolonged haemorrhage—Syria does not.

Much of the country’s natural resources are outside the regime’s control. Iran is struggling financially. Even Russia may not be willing to help al-Assad, as he continues to undermine her political initiatives and hinders her attempts to turn a profit on her investment—propping him up for five years. The al-Assad regime is an exhausted geriatric; the sanctions could finish it off for good.

Most importantly, what’s the alternative to sanctions? Should the world accept al-Assad’s re-emergence as a leader after killing nearly 200,000 civilians? What message does that send to other war criminals? What should the world do with the 5.6 million Syrian refugees abroad?

So, do I support the sanctions on my country? I do not know. I’m afraid that my desire for the al-Assad regime to be brought down is blinding me to the cost of US sanctions on civilians still living in regime-held areas.

I was among the first people to organize protests in 2011, demanding an end to corruption and authoritarianism. Because of al-Assad’s brutal response to the peaceful protests—and the world’s inaction—my parents and siblings are now scattered across the US, Canada, Germany, and Hungary, while I live in New Zealand. Our Ottoman-era house was destroyed by al-Assad’s barrel bombs. Because of my activism abroad, I will never be able to visit my country as long as al-Assad is in power.

My desire to see al-Assad and his men ousted is so strong it may be biasing my judgement as to what is ethically correct. I do not have to admit the bias for it to exist.

Our house in Aleppo in 2010 (photo credit: my brother AlHakam)

Our house in Aleppo in 2010 (photo credit: my brother AlHakam)

Alleyway of our house in Aleppo in December 2016 after being targeted by a barrel bomb

Our house in Aleppo in 2016 looted (photo credit: Mazen Shaar)

My father, Dr Ahmad Adib Shaar (1949-2018), Photo credit: Sawsan Shaar)