On February 6th, 2023, Northern Syria and Southern Turkey was struck by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake. For reference, the famous 2010 Haiti earthquake that dominated headlines for weeks was a 7.0 on the Richter Scale. For Syria – a country already war-torn from over a decade of conflict – the tremors brought devastating results. More than 7,000 deaths and 8,700 injuries have been reported thus far, and more than 10,000 buildings were partially or completely destroyed.
Relief efforts in the country have been impeded by the presence of sanctions, which the United States and western allies have levied against Syria for over forty years. After originally claiming that the sanctions would have no effect on relief efforts, the Biden Administration quickly announced a 180-day temporary window where the sanctions would not be enforced. As welcome as this news was, local humanitarian groups maintained that this limited window was still not enough. Three weeks after the earthquake, on February 27, the U.S. House of Representatives voted on House Resolution 132, which stated that although the House "mourns the horrific loss of life" and "expresses its deep condolences to the families", none of the sanctions on Syria would be lifted. The bill passed, with 414 voting in favor, and only 2 voting against. I’m sure their condolences were well-received by the Syrian people.
Unfortunately, this earthquake and its aftermath is just the latest in a long line of sanction-induced suffering by the Syrian people. In 1979 – under the Carter Administration – the United States designated Syria as a "State Sponsor of Terrorism" and sanctioned the country accordingly. These initial sanctions were fairly minor, mostly targeting government and regime-affiliated individuals. These limited sanctions would remain on the country until they were greatly expanded in 2003 in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. This expansion took place with the passage of the Syria Accountability Act. These sanctions – which would soon be copied by other western allies – prevented any kind of trade between the United States and Syria.
In 2011, following the famed "Arab Spring" protests, civil war broke out in Syria between the Bashar Al Assad regime and coalition rebel forces – dubbed the "Syrian Free Army". Despite these rebel forces being dominated by Al-Qaeda affiliated forces, the CIA supported them with weapons and munitions in an effort to overthrow Assad and bring Syria under the US sphere of influence. The result was a bloody civil war that raged on for the better part of a decade and killed more than 300,000 Syrian civilians. In an effort to escape the brutal fighting, Syria became the source of an unprecedented immigration crisis, with an estimated 6.8 million Syrian citizens fleeing the country to nations all over the world. Furthermore, the war decimated the Syrian economy, cutting GDP from 252.2 billion USD in 2010 to just 12.6 billion USD in 2016.
After years of brutal back-and-forth fighting around the country, the Assad regime (with help from Russian and Iranian forces) started beating back the rebel coalition. In late 2017, the Trump Administration cut off any funding for the Syrian opposition, striking a crucial blow to their ability to resist government military forces. The Syrian Free Army – at this point now "rebranded" as Hyatt Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) – slowly lost territory over the following months until. By mid-to-late 2019, the only remaining enclave of resistance was in Idlib in northwest Syria. Government forces have thus far been unable to deliver the coup de grace to this last pocket of resistance, cementing this state of affairs as an uneasy status quo ever since.
With the civil war all but over, the Syrian government and people began to turn their efforts towards putting the pieces of their country back together. However, these efforts would be grievously subverted before they could even begin. In 2019, the United States passed the Caesar Act, named after a secret operative who smuggled out evidence of torture and human rights violations in prisons operated by the Assad government. The Caesar Act targets any businesses or individuals "knowingly support" or provide "significant" goods or services to the Syrian government, including any products pertaining to oil, aviation, military equipment, or construction. Most importantly, the Caesar Act extends beyond the US borders, applying to any non-American citizens as well.
While the Caesar Act was passed under the pretense of "protecting" the Syrian people from the human rights abuses of the Assad regime, the outcome of these sanctions has been increasing the sanction-induced death grip on the nation as a whole. The functional purpose of the Caesar Act is to prevent Syria from having access to any foreign goods or services, thereby making it exponentially more difficult to rebuild the country. Anthony Blinken, the Biden Administration’s Secretary of State, has openly stated as much. During a press conference, Blinken said that it is the position of the US to "oppose the reconstruction of Syria. Judging by that metric, the Caesar Act has thus far been a complete success. The following figures illustrate just how successful the Cesar Act has been towards achieving that end:
- The U.N. estimated that in 2022, 14.6 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance – more than half the population of the country.
- 12.1 million are estimated to be food insecure, also more than half of the population. Many of those in need of food and assistance are children as well.
- UNICEF reports that 90% of families now live in poverty.
- The Syrian economy has still not recovered from the civil war (due in large part to American sanctions), with Syria’s GDP in 2020 reaching only 11.087 billion USD, making it one of the poorest countries in the world. While COVID accounts for some of this drop-off, 2020 was also the first full year that the Syrian economy was hit with the sanctions from the Caesar Act.
This brings us back to the present day. With the destruction caused by the February 6th earthquake, the needs of the Syrian people are at an all-time high. What was the United State’s response to this crisis? Well, we feel bad for you, but because your country has the wrong government, nothing is going to change. Sure, they get a 180-day window, but after that the strangling of Syria will continue as scheduled. Perhaps I am overly optimistic, but I would have thought that even the cold-blooded creatures in Washington D.C. would have some heart in such a desperate situation. Such is the mentality of empire. The mantra of the United States’ foreign policy was and remains geopolitical interests above all else – regardless of the consequences. The result of this myopic focus has been repeated foreign policy failures and humanitarian crises to boot. We can see this pattern at work in Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria.
The story of Syria thus far can only be described as a tragedy. However, that story has not yet reached its end. Syria can still recover and rebuild, but the United States stands firmly in the way of those efforts. What the story of Syria demonstrates is that foreign policy carries very real consequences. Whenever that foreign policy leads to wide-scale suffering – as we see in Syria – those consequences cannot and should not be ignored. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of all those who can raise awareness to such atrocities to do so. While the past cannot be undone, we can prevent history from repeating itself.
The US can be a force for peace and liberty in the world, instead of a force of destruction. Until that happens, however, Syria will remain as yet another casualty of the American Empire.
J.W. Rich is an economics student in Charlotte, North Carolina. His interests are in economic theory and the history of economic thought. He is the host of the Marginal Investigations Podcast. His work can be found on his blog at thejwrich.medium.com.