Syria’s quake response: A window into the grisly (but declining) impact of U.S. sanctions worldwide

Helena Cobban
11 min readFeb 10, 2023
Image: Syrian Arab Red Crescent rescue teams at a collapsed building in Aleppo

We’ve all seen the pictures. On February 6, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck broad swathes of northern Syria, along with neighboring portions of Türkiye…

Türkiye has a functioning government, and since the earthquake it has received and deployed significant amounts of aid from all around the world. But Syria? The delivery of aid to that country’s people is hamstrung by the super-harsh sanctions that Washington and the EU have maintained on the country for many years now. These sanctions inflict their greatest harm on the government-held parts of the country, but they also seriously impede the flow of aid to residents of the rebel-held parts.

In northwestern Syria, the quake destroyed apartment buildings, mosques, and vital bridges in both the government-held and the rebel-held areas.

On February 9 the UN’s Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen stressed that, “We need to do everything to make sure that there are no impediments whatsoever to delay lifesaving support that is needed in Syria.” He added that representatives of the United States and the EU had assured him, “they will do whatever they can to make sure that there are no impediments to assistance coming to Syria to help in this operation”.

Let’s hope that happens. Back on February 6, shortly after the earthquake struck, State Department spokesman Ned Price said glibly that, “It would be quite ironic if not even counterproductive…for us to reach out to a government that has brutalized its people over the course of a dozen years now.”

The American/EU sanctions on Syria have been, and remain, grisly in their effect. They are part of a broader push that Washington has pursued since the end of the Cold War: of greatly increasing its reliance on economic punishment to effect political change in countries around the world.

The costs that these sanctions impose on the most vulnerable citizens of the sanctioned countries continue to be harsh. But as I hope to show below, Washington’s sudden relegation last year of Russia into the ranks of “Team Sanctioned” greatly strengthened the ability of that team to resist and withstand Washington’s punishments… But first, back to Syria.

The U.S. government and most of the U.S. media have been united for many years in blaming all the suffering of Syria’s people on forces loyal to Pres. Bashar al-Asad. But as a recent report by the UN Human Rights Council’s International Commission of Inquiry on Syria made clear, no party to that country’s devastating, 11-year civil war has clean hands. Nearly all the fighting forces operating in Syria have committed significant violations of international law-and that includes the forces actively supported by the United States (which also, itself, fields one of the five foreign armies currently operating inside Syria.)

Sensibly, the first of the nine policy recommendations voiced in the International Commission’s report was a strong call for “a long-lasting, nationwide ceasefire… that creates the conditions for meaningful peace talks.” The mention they made of a need for “accountability” came briefly, right at the end of their list.

Washington, however, has maintained harmful sanctions on Syria since 1979; and since 2012 it has used beefed-up sanctions as a tool in an openly declared push to overthrow the country’s government completely. So it’s unlikely it will easily allow any peace moves to proceed…

Syria is far from the only country whose people’s lives have been severely blighted — or in too many cases, ended — by Washington’s application of “unilateral coercive measures”, that is, unauthorized economic sanctions. The longest-standing set of sanctions still in force today are the ones that were slapped on Cuba in July 1963. Significantly, Pres. John F.Kennedy imposed those sanctions after the failure of the armed regime-change operation at the Bay of Pigs and the de-escalation of the Cuban Missile Crisis had brought home that he could no longer plan to overthrow Pres. Fidel Castro’s government through the use of force. (A commitment not to do so was part of the broad agreement under which Washington and Moscow finally ended the missile crisis.)

Slapping sanctions on Cuba was then Kennedy’s Plan B for achieving the same end. Until today, it has not achieved that goalthough it has inflicted considerable hardship on two generations of Cubans.

The lack of success in Cuba did not, however, deter successive presidents in. Washington from turning to sanctions as a favored tool of coercion in foreign policy. In 2020, the Center for a New American Security illustrated the growth in the scope of U.S. sanctions programs over the preceding decade with this graphic:

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That graphic is useful to show the growth of sanctions. But Cuba is not even on the CNAS’s list! And neither are numerous other countries targeted by Washington.

The government body charged with maintaining and regulating the sanctions is the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. OFAC maintains on this web-page a much fuller list of all the sanctions programs it is regulating, which contains Cuba and several other countries not mentioned in the CNAS study — for a total of 25 countries. Numerous individuals, including both government officials and other actors, are also on their list.

Most members of the American political elite, including presidents, members of congress, and influential voices in the punditocracy seem to love to impose sanctions on countries of whose leaders they disapprove! Sometimes, as in the case of Cuba or (in an earlier era) Vietnam, this happens after military operations to effect regime change have been tried and have either failed or been disavowed.

Then, there’s the case of Iraq. Back in 1991, Pres. George H.W. Bush launched a huge military operation to end that country’s occupation of Kuwait. The U.S. military achieved that goal. But then Bush halted their advance at (or near) the Kuwait-Iraq border; and from then on he continued his regime-change project against Pres. Saddam Hussein by using sanctions instead…

For the next 12 years, those sanctions were draconian. At one point, Washington promised to reduce their (anti-)humanitarian impact through a special “oil for food” program. But two successive envoys whom the U.N. sent to Iraq to gauge its effectiveness resigned in disgust after they found themselves unable to change policies that, as they saw with their own eyes, were killing many thousands of Iraq’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

In 1996, when Pres. Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was told that as many as 500,000 Iraqi children might have been killed by the sanctions, she infamously replied that even if that was true, “it was worth it.”

In 2003, Pres. George W. Bush sent the U.S. military to topple Saddam’s government through brute force. Some commentators at that point briefly used the obscene argument that launching that invasion was morally preferable to any decision merely to continue the sanctions. (After it became clear that the U.S. invasion brought to Iraq not liberal democracy but only further killings, mayhem, and social collapse, those arguments were no longer heard…)

It’s worth underlining that, while in an earlier era the United States would often try to obtain UN authorization for sanctions it sought to impose on governments elsewhere, over recent decades Washington has usually not even bothered to try to do this. It does on occasion win EU participation in the sanctions. But with or without EU participation, it is still the case that coercive economic measures (sanctions) that are not authorized by the UN Security Council are a violation of international law.

In a 2019 study of the sanctions that Pres. Trump imposed against Venezuela in 2017, Jeffrey Sachs and Mark Weisbrot found that:

the sanctions have inflicted, and increasingly inflict, very serious harm to human life and health, including an estimated more than 40,000 deaths from 2017–2018; and that these sanctions would fit the definition of collective punishment of the civilian population as described in both the Geneva and Hague international conventions, to which the US is a signatory. They are also illegal under international law and treaties which the US has signed, and would appear to violate US law as well.

Those sanctions were imposed by Pres. Trump as part of an evident push to overthrow Venezuela’s government. After Joe Biden became president in 2021, he kept them in place. These days, leading members of both U.S. political parties seem to resort to sanctions almost as a reflex, in any situation of disagreement with leaders of other countries.

We might endlessly speculate as to why members of the U.S. political elite are so fond of sanctions. (Is it just solipsistic arrogance? Is it some legacy of judgmentalism imbibed from the country’s Puritan founders? Are sanctions seen as a way of “intervening” that is less harmful than military force?)

What is more important, however, is to note these essential features of Washington’s increasingly frequent recourse to sanctions:

  1. U.S. sanctions have only rarely achieved even a portion of their stated political goal, and this was always far more likely (as in the case of those imposed against Apartheid South Africa) when they had the full backing and authorization of the UN.
  2. Everywhere they are used, sanctions inflict their greatest harm on the poorest and most disadvantaged members of society. (In South Africa, the anti-Apartheid movements recognized this, but they declared clearly that they were prepared to bear this burden as part of their quest for freedom.)
  3. “Unilateral” U.S. sanctions can only ever even be imagined as having a chance of working because of three essential features of the United States’ role in the world economy: the dominant position of the U.S. market in international trade; the role of the U.S. dollar in international transactions, even those between non-US parties; and U.S. control of global payments and banking systems.
  4. At all those three levels of the world economy, the United States’ position has declined considerably in recent years. And the actions of U.S. leaders have themselves made a huge contribution to this declineincluding actions they have taken regarding both sanctions and trade/tariffs.

Back in February last year, Pres. Biden’s first and most momentous response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was his super-speedy imposition of tight sanctions on a very broad range of Russian entities. But as I (and many other analysts) have noted, those sanctions still have not had anything like the desired effects of (a) crippling Russia’s economy, and thereby (b) forcing Pres. Putin to pull back out of Ukraine. (A more mischievous view of the sanctions would be that-as in Cuba, Venezuela, or elsewhere-the sanctions’ actual goal was to foment such broad discontent inside Russia that Putin would be overthrown.)

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At the economic level, it is now clear that the Russian economy has withstood the early impact of Biden’s sanctions; and it shows every sign of continuing to do so. Russia has found new markets for its hydrocarbons and other products, redirecting much of its external trade from Western Europe to East Asia. It has been developing new trade routes south through Iran to the Indian Ocean. (See graphic.) Despite all of Biden’s measures, the Russian economy registered a slight increase in GDP in 2022.

Why have American sanctions on Russia failed so badly? The main reason seems to be the failure of U.S. policymakers to understand either the intrinsic resilience of the Russian economy itself or, equally importantly, an emerging new fact in international economics: that over the past two decades Washington had already sanctioned and tariffed itself into an increasingly tight economic corner.

Team Sanctioned. Source.

In a recent book Backfire: How Sanctions Reshape the World Against U.S. Interests, French researcher Agathe Demarais gave a (frustratingly fragmentary) account of some parts of the story of how this happened. But if you look at a map of all the countries that are members of “Team Sanctioned” today, you can see that they already form the basis for a broad international coalition. And some of them, like Iran, have over the years acquired considerable expertise in devising workarounds to the restrictions that Washington seeks to impose.

Russia had already been a low-ranking member of Team Sanctioned long before 2022, but the harsh new curbs that Biden announced last February jolted it up to the top of the roster-which also strengthened the team considerably.

Team Sanctioned also has numerous allies among Team Tariffed-crucially, China, whose leaders have long been interested in developing alternatives to both the petrodollar and the (US-controlled) “SWIFT” international payment system. So guess what we have seen emerging over the past year? A rapid rise in the use by oil traders in various countries of currencies other than the dollar to delineate their sales. (Read this early-January article in Business Insider to gain some flavor of the extent to which Washington’s sanctions on Russia have helped spur the rise of the petroyuan.) And a parallel spur by policymakers in all of Team Sanctioned (and its allies) to further develop international payment systems that are free of U.S. surveillance and control.

These changes in the global economic landscape are already evident. They are already carving a significant dent in Washington’s ability to control the global economy. But it will be some further time before these changes pose a final challenge to Washington’s control.

In the meantime, Syrians living on both sides of their country’s brutal civil-war frontline are dying because of U.S. (and EU) sanctions. The economies of Venezuela and Iran are being hollowed out. People in these and tens of other countries around the world are having their lives blighted because political leaders in Washington have decided that fierce economic sanctions are, like the use of military force, a completely valid way of seeking to impose their political will on any country they choose to, anywhere in the world.

But the imposition of unilateral sanctions is not a valid or legitimate way to act! All of us who oppose the use of U.S. military force overseas should be equally opposed to the use of U.S. sanctions.

Always, when either one of these types of tool is proposed in the halls of government, the “intention” is defined as a noble one. “We Americans”, it is claimed, have not only a right but very often, also a duty to intervene.

In truth, in the absence of clear UN authorization, we have neither. And the results of either kind of “intervention” are far too often disastrous-for the very people that our leaders tell us that they are seeking to help!

Go figure. It apparently was not Einstein who said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting the result to be different. But whether U.S. political leaders are insane or not, it is time for the rest of us to tell them to stop harming millions of people around the world through the applications of sanctions. And yes, in Syria as in Russia/Ukraine, that also means we need to throw U.S. support behind the negotiations that are so sorely needed, to end the misery and bloodshed.

Originally published at https://globalities.org on February 10, 2023.

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Helena Cobban

Veteran analyst of global affairs, w/ some focus on West Asia. Pres., Just World Educational. Writes at Globalities.org.