Syria: Despite Covid-19, the European Union continues to tighten sanctions
Article in German by Sabine Kebir, appearing in Der Freitag
On February 17, the EU foreign ministers unanimously decided on further tightening measures against individuals and groups allegedly helping the Syrian government to circumvent the earlier sanctions. On March 15, the ninth anniversary of the beginning of the conflict in Syria, the governments of Great Britain, France and Germany declared that Damascus was solely responsible for the current situation and the devastating humanitarian consequences.
Although the first corona cases had already occurred in Syria, the authors let it be known that an embargo on medical goods would neither be relaxed nor lifted. This is out of the question for the areas controlled by the government army – 75 percent of the habitable territory.
Under UN control
According to Idriss Jazairy, the former Special Rapporteur for the UN Human Rights Council, who examined the consequences of punitive actions against developing countries, the Syria sanctions are among the toughest to be imposed on a state since World War II. After all, third countries are also punished if they do not treat Syria the same way as the EU and the USA. The sanctions affect a country whose gross national product has decreased by two thirds since 2011, where inflation is 85 percent and unemployment is close to 50 percent.
It’s not just trade that is blocked. The Syrian Central Bank’s foreign balances, which could be used to procure the necessary goods, have also been frozen. In order to let up, at least here, Jazairy had proposed the creation of a procurement office under the auspices of the United Nations in Damascus. It would guarantee that only relief goods for humanitarian purposes are imported. Such a practice would also be helpful for other countries in need, such as Yemen, which have been hit by civil wars – a decision is still pending.
For example, the regions controlled by Damascus only receive UN emergency aid, which ensures immediate survival, but hardly affects the health system. The fact that the Syrian core country is denied all EU aid with food and medical goods is largely hidden from the public, because the multi-billion dollar transfers for the parts of the Idlib province held by the rebels and for refugee camps in Turkey are declared “Aid to Syria”.
This may explain why there is hardly any protest by the Left Party amid the milieu of Easter marches, as against the sanctioning of Iran, Venezuela and Cuba. It would be a surrender of left-wing humanism if the reason for the abstinence was only that on March 26 the AfD demanded that sanctions against Syria be lifted.
Another interpretation is more plausible. For politicians and the media alike, the fact that the damage caused by sanctions against a destroyed country like Syria is suppressed, is based on the same ideological pattern as the displacement of the 27 million dead of the Soviet Union in World War II.
They are remembered far less than Stalin and his dictatorship. The slogan “Assad must go” is firmly anchored in green and left milieus. Likewise, it is accepted that any reconstruction aid from the West for Syria will only be considered if the Assad government meets its political demands.
EU governments’ statements on Syria sanctions give the impression that they are in line with the UN’s positions. Special rapporteur Idriss Jazairy disagrees. After 1945, the United Nations had considered such punitive measures in the hope that they would be less destructive than wars and could help solve political crises. The success of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, which the World Organization had supported not least through sanctions, showed that this was possible.
In the meantime, however, measures imposed on states or groups of states mutate into blackmail of weak states by strong ones. In this way, conflicts cannot be contained. In some cases, this has fatal consequences that are in no way inferior to those of acts of war. As Syria is one such example, UN Secretary-General António Guterres appealed to the G20 on March 23 to lift all sanctions against the country. Pope Francis said the same in his Easter message.
Against the Geneva Convention
A decisive German reaction to the above-mentioned declaration by the three leading EU states about Syria came from the Christian Solidarity International (CSI) organization, which is committed to freedom of religion worldwide. It has long provided humanitarian assistance to Syria, which benefits all religious communities through Christian communities there.
On March 25, CSI appealed to Foreign Minister Maas to support the lifting of sanctions that “harm millions of internally displaced people and vulnerable civilians,” and a revised Syria policy. Human rights violations of the government camp may not be approved, but neither should the crimes by the “rebels”. This included not only physical atrocities, but above all reprisals against religious minorities in the areas they controlled. Sanctions were a “form of collective punishment that contradicts the corresponding ban on the Geneva Convention”. On June 1, 2019, the EU heads of government decided to extend the unilateral punitive measures against Syria by one year. On June 1, 2020, Covid-19 may force them to change their minds.