The US has issued a 180-day exemption for its sanctions on Syria that applies to “all transactions related to earthquake relief efforts,” according to the US Treasury Department.
The exemption was announced on Thursday night and came days after a devastating earthquake hit northern Syria and Turkey. As of Sunday, over 33,000 people have been killed in the earthquake. More than 4,500 people died in Syria, and at least 29,605 have been killed in Turkey.
In the wake of the earthquake, the head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) detailed how US and other Western sanctions were impeding the relief effort. After growing calls to lift sanctions, the US issued the exemption, but UN experts say more needs to be done.
“While welcoming steps taken to suspend some sanctions on Syria, I call all sanctioning states to lift sanctions, to open all ways to deliver humanitarian aid and to ensure that no donor, bank or other actor is punished for humanitarian help to Syrians to avoid over-compliance,” Alena Douhan, a UN special rapporteur for the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures, wrote on Twitter.
Douhan and several other UN experts released a joint statement that also called for the lifting of all sanctions. They said they welcome the exemption but that it might not be enough to offset the harm sanctions cause in Syria.
“We wish to recall that such systems of humanitarian carve-outs may not be sufficient to address the long-term negative effects of sanctions, as well as business over-compliance with sanctions and financial de-risking,” the statement said.
The statement said they were concerned relief efforts were facing severe restrictions due to sanctions. “Even during natural disasters, when hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake, it is gravely concerning that humanitarian actors face persisting challenges due to sanctions, including with regard to procurement procedures and bank transfers,” it said.
The experts added that there are reports that Syrians in other countries cannot send money to their families. “It is reported that the Syrian diaspora is unable to provide financial support through remittances or other means of funding,” the statement said.
Even if the exemption successfully allows more relief efforts, US sanctions on Syria are specifically designed to prevent the country’s reconstruction, which will hamper rebuilding after the earthquake. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in 2021 that it is US policy to “oppose the reconstruction of Syria.”
The earthquake caused damage and killed people in both government-controlled territories in Syria and areas in the northwestern province of Idlib that are mostly controlled by the al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Syrian media reported on February 10 that Damascus approved aid deliveries into opposition-controlled areas, which will be overseen by the SARC and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
But a UN spokesperson on Sunday told Reuters that earthquake aid into Idlib from government-controlled areas aid was being held up by HTS. The spokesperson said there were “approvement issues” with HTS. A source for the al-Qaeda-linked group told Reuters that they didn’t want to accept the aid out of concerns it would make the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad look good. “We won’t allow the regime to take advantage of the situation to show they are helping,” the source said.