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  September 29, 2016

US and EU Sanctions Are Devastating Syrian Civilians

They have resulted in a worsened humanitarian crisis and the empowerment of Assad, yet show no signs of being lifted soon, says journalist Rania Khalek
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DHARNA NOOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, I’m Dharna Noor. A United Nations report obtained by The Intercept, shows that the UN has found US and EU sanctions to be worsening the humanitarian crisis in Syria. The report titled Humanitarian Impact of Syria-Related Unilateral Restrictive Measures, found that the detrimental impact on aid, trade, healthcare, and national infrastructure is taking a toll on citizens. It concludes, “Unless addressed now, the impact of sanctions will last well after the sanctions are either removed or modified and may create a new catastrophe in terms of crippling economic and humanitarian effects.”

Joining us now to discuss this is, Rania Khalek. Rania is an associate editor at the Electronic Intifada and a co-host of the podcast, Unauthorized Disclosure. Her latest article for The Intercept is titled, “U.S. and EU Sanctions Are Punishing Ordinary Syrians and Crippling Aid Work, U.N. Report Reveals.” Thanks for joining us today, Rania.

RANIA KHALEK: Good to be on with you.

NOOR: So, take us through who put this report together and in what ways are the sanctions impacting the lives of ordinary Syrians as well as the humanitarian operations in Syria?

KHALEK: The report was commissioned by the UN to basically study and analyze the humanitarian impact of US and EU sanctions on Syria. Especially in light of the humanitarian crisis, which is the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. Its what its being described as. What they found is that speaking to NGO workers across the board, various non-governmental organizations that are providing aid relief to Syria have come across various stumbling blocks because of the US and EU sanctions. And a lot of these NGOs reported that deliver, aid delivery, was actually being blocked by the sanctions. Including things that are urgently needed in Syria, at the moment, like medicines and medical devices, and blood safety kits. And fair parts for everything from water pumps to trucks and cars to power plants. These are just basic things that any country would need on a given basis but in Syria where you’ve got bombs falling and bullets flying, a lot of critical infrastructure has been destroyed. Its taking these aid groups months to basically even procure the kinds of spare parts that they need to repair damages done to critical infrastructure.

There’s the other issue, the aid issue aside, there’s the other issue of the fact that its destabilized the Syrian economy because there’re sanctions on Syrian banks. The banking system doesn’t even work in Syria. Syrians, they can’t make any transactions, whatsoever. ATMs, PayPal, all these things don’t function in Syria, everything is cash or remittance. What’s happened is its also difficult to basically get funds into the country. Because other banks are scared of sanctions, they often reject transactions. They won’t even do them if they’re with Syria, even if they’re legal transactions that aid groups need. Sometimes aid groups can’t even pay their staff on the ground or pay their suppliers.

And, what the report says, is that because of that, often times, aid to both government and besieged areas in Syria is being prevented and delayed. That’s serious. In any humanitarian catastrophe like this where you see the clear need for, especially medical aid, the fact that its not being let in is just compounding catastrophe.

NOOR: So, why do these sanctions exist in the first place? What’s, sort of, the history of the EU Sanctions and these US Sanctions?

KHALEK: Well, there’s been sanctions on Syria even before the 2011 uprising started. Syria’s been under US sanctions since 1979. But those sanctions were ramped up after 2011 because of the Syrian regime’s deadly crackdown on protestors. And at first they were targeted sanctions against particular individuals in the Syrian government but they ended up revolving in to blanket sanctions over the whole country. You can’t do any business with any Syrian government entity. If you think about what that means, it means you can’t do business with the Ministry of Education, if you’re aid on the ground.

You can’t do business with anyone on the Syrian government, you’re not supposed to be doing business with anyone on the Syrian government. Its impacting Syrians, overall, too. Its also impacted food, that’s another issue that’s taking place is where food is being affected. Food aid and not just food aid but also people’s ability to actually produce it. Syria used to be a country that was fairly self-sufficient in things like food production and even medicine production. Now, because of the civil war, which again, has destroyed a lot of infrastructure, now the sanctions added on top of that, its actually really really difficult, next to impossible for medicine factories or agriculture areas to get the equipment that they need or the raw products they need to produce things.

Syria’s economy went from being self-sufficient to now its completely aid dependent. Thirteen million Syrians are dependent on aid for their basic needs. Something like eighty percent of the country is living in poverty since the civil war started and the sanctions have played a role in that as well. It makes no sense the idea of the sanctions, the purpose of them, is that the US official line here is to weaken the regime, to weaken the Assad regime and put pressure on them to end their military offensives and to come to the negotiating table. That’s what the US says. But, in fact, if anything, what I was told was that this is actually, in a way, empowering the Syrian government because now the vast majority of Syrians are dependent on the government to get by because the governments are still paying out pensions and still paying out salaries and offering all these subsidies.

So, if anything people are more dependent now on the government, than they were before. Its not even working. Just the humanitarian issue, aside. When it comes to weakening the government, its not working. We’ve seen this in history. Sanctions do not hurt the governments, they end up hurting the people and even if they are hurting the governments, is it worth hurting ordinary civilians this way?

Look at what we did in Iraq. That was UN-led sanctions but the US was the big pusher of those sanctions and what ended up happening was that Iraq’s infrastructure deteriorated to the point where something like five hundred thousand children, under the age of five, ended up dying from various things like lack of medication, starvation, and preventable diseases. Right now, we’re into a five, almost six-year civil war in Syria. And the humanitarian situation on the ground is really bad. Should it get worse, you can imagine something similar happening along the lines of what happened in Iraq. Perhaps the only thing that’s standing in the way of that, at this point, is the fact that the UN Security Council, Russia and China, vetoed attempts by the US and its allies to push for UN-led sanctions. Which would be catastrophic in a humanitarian sense.

NOOR: Now, most of the blame for the crisis in Syria is placed on the shoulders of Bashar al-Assad, right? So, how have US officials responded to these findings, the sanctions they’re contributing to the suffering? If the sanctions are really contributing to this suffering and they’re not really achieving their political goals, are there signs that they’ll be lifted?

KHALEK: No, there aren’t. In fact, despite the fact that they’re not working, now they’re hurting ordinary people. I asked the State Department about that and their response was that this was all Bashar al-Assad’s fault, he’s the one causing humanitarian catastrophe and they deny completely that sanctions were hurting civilians even though they clearly are. That’s kinda been the US line since any sanctions that’s been in Iran, Iraq and now Syria. That’s always been the US line. The fact of the matter is that that’s not the case. On top of that, you have to remember too, that the US is not just sanctions. The US is also spending at least a billion dollars, annually, arming the Syrian opposition. These are just different factions of groups and the US doesn’t really know who they’re arming, but they are. And that’s just the US. You also got other countries, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey. There are all these other countries that are arming and suppling aid to the insurgency. They are in effect also fueling the conflict.

So, for the US to be spending a billion dollars every year to be arming and funding an insurgency that’s prolonging the war and at the same time to be obstructing aid and putting in place these sanctions measures that are denying aid to people, that just goes to show you the hypocrisy of US policy. There are people, from the US, the opposition advocates inside the United States, especially those in congress, have been pushing hard to not only strengthen the sanctions against Syria but also to extend them to any entity that does business with any part of the Syrian government.

Of course, that means Russia. That means taking these draconian measures and placing them on Russia, which would just escalate what seems to be the revival of the Cold War. I don’t know what good can come out of that but there are people who are pushing for it. Obama apparently vetoed that measure. That was recently reported. But, assuming that Hillary Clinton is gonna be the next president, I assume that she’s probably going to go the other route. She’s demonstrated in her rhetoric, at least, that she wants to escalate, not only the US involvement in Syria, which has not been an action, the US has been very active in Syria, but she also wants to go even further and institute an “no fly” zone. So, I guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens, but in the meantime, civilians are suffering. Its not just one group or one government that’s causing it, its lots of governments that are causing it.

NOOR: Rania’s latest for The Intercept is “U.S. and EU Sanctions Are Punishing Ordinary Syrians and Crippling Aid Work, U.N. Report Reveals.” Thanks so much for joining us, Rania, hope to talk to you soon.

KHALEK: Great to be with you.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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