Nearly 10,000 Syrians died in the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck the Turkey-Syria border in February. As sad as that number is, the increase could have been much higher if the Biden administration had not — after significant public outcry — issued a license exempting certain humanitarian activities from the threat of economic sanctions.
The decision is a clear acknowledgment that US sanctions against Syria, expanded to an unprecedented level under the 2019 Caesar Act, could harm ordinary civilians in the war-torn country. . But whatever limited breathing room the license temporarily provided, it, and more, is now at risk.
A new bill from Rep. Joe Wilson (RS.C.) who forbade the normalization of relations with the government of Bashar al-Assad also aims to tighten economic sanctions on Syria. In addition to extending the sunset of the Caesar Act from 2024 to 2032, the Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act (HR 3202) expands the list of sanctioned activities and entities, requiring the president to respond to the requests of those congressional sanctions, and requires the use of “the full range of authorities,” including sanctions, to “prevent reconstruction activities in any areas under the control of Bashar al- Assad.”
Reasonable people can have different positions about whether and how the United States government is related to Assad. What we know with near certainty is that intensifying economic sanctions will prevent reconstruction from the earthquake and years of war, and increase the suffering of the Syrian people.
In a recent report for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, I conducted a comprehensive review of the economic literature on the effects of economic sanctions on various measures of civilian welfare. Of the 32 studies available – almost all peer-reviewed – 30 found that sanctions caused significant harm to the populations of the targeted countries, including worsening poverty, inequality, and human rights.
One study linked multilateral sanctions with an average collapse in per capita GDP equivalent to that of the Great Depression. Another found that multilateral sanctions were associated with a drop in female life expectancy comparable to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the effects observed are similar to those found during war.
Nine out of 10 Syrians currently live in poverty. Food prices have risen 800 percent in two years, leaving 12.1 million people food insecure. The Syrian pound recently hit an all-time low. Amid inflation, depreciation, and shortages of fuel and medicine, the UN Special Envoy for Syria reported late last year that “the needs of the Syrian people have reached their worst levels since the conflict.”
Of course, it is difficult to disentangle how much of this particular humanitarian disaster is driven by sanctions rather than the fallout from the war or the mismanagement and corruption of the Assad government. This lack of smoking-gun data is often used as justification for continuing sanctions. But the overwhelming economic evidence of how the sanctions have affected targeted economies leaves little doubt that they are significantly worsening the situation in Syria. A recent study by the Carter Center stated that the comprehensive sanctions had “devastating direct and indirect effects on the Syrian economy and the majority of its population”, while a human rights expert in The UN has concluded that the massive sanctions imposed on the Syrian economy have had a devastating effect on almost all categories. of human rights.
As is often the case, this huge human cost has few obvious benefits. Sanctions rarely succeed in changing the behavior of targeted governments, especially those that are not accountable to their citizens. In fact, some evidence shows that sanctions are associated with the deterioration rather than the enhancement of democracy. Twelve years of war and economic isolation have failed to oust Assad. If this is, in fact, the intention of the authors of the bills, it is difficult to see how the Syrian people can be persuaded to do so now at a time when the government appears to be consolidating control and returning to rebuilding. – again.
US lawmakers are free to debate whether or not to normalize relations with Assad, and how we should react when other countries do so. But as they consider whether or not to vote for HR 3202, members of Congress should know that the bill will further punish millions of innocent Syrians. The Biden administration should lift economic sanctions on Syria, not impose new ones. The people of Syria have suffered enough.
Francisco Rodríguez is the Rice Family Professor of the Practice of International and Public Affairs at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.
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