Scorched Earth Policy

BERLIN/WASHINGTON/DAMASCUS (Own report) - Syria faces an open economic war with the new EU and US sanctions, experts contend. A recent analysis of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) notes, the sanctions have a "hugely detrimental impact on the most vulnerable members of Syria's population." The sanctions imposed on Syria have been strongly criticized internationally for many years. Already in 2016, the United Nations noted, that it is the "most complicated and far-reaching sanctions regimes ever imposed." UN officials cite Western sanctions and not the war as the "principal factor" in the erosion of Syria's health care system. Now that Brussels has even extended its sanctions, Washington is about to impose sanctions on all companies and countries lending support to Syrian government projects to rebuild the country. The ECFR speaks of a „scorched earth policy."

"The Most Far-Reaching Sanctions Regime ever"

The sanctions imposed on Syria have been strongly criticized for many years. Already in May 2016, a study commissioned by the United Nations concluded that sanctions have disastrous consequences on the civilian population. In totality, the sanctions imposed by Brussels and Washington on Syria are the "most complicated and far-reaching sanctions regimes ever imposed."[1] Even the export of medical devices to Syria requires a license and the procedures are time-consuming and costly. Because they would have to act in a twilight zone, many Western companies do not even make the attempt. Therefore, the transatlantic sanctions regime is de facto preventing humanitarian aid to the civilian population. Internal UN emails, at the time, already spoke a clearer language. In an email from August 2016, a UN official warned that the EU-US sanctions had contributed to a doubling in fuel prices in 18 months and a 40 percent drop in wheat production since 2010. Medicine-producing factories that haven't been completely destroyed in the war have been forced to close because they cannot get the raw-materials needed for their production. Ultimately, Western sanctions are the "principal factor" in the erosion of Syria's health care system.[2]

Driven into Misery

The catastrophic situation persists. Large sectors of Syria's economy are affected by the sanctions - also because the EU and USA have imposed financial sanctions, making financial transfers impossible, thereby completely prohibiting the importation of essential commodities. It is reported that hospitals cannot acquire life-saving medicines, for example, to treat cancer. In Damascus, according to reports, 10% of those suffering from kidney failure had died because the machines weren't always operating due to a lack of spare parts, or lack of the necessary software updates.[3] Recently, the escalation of US sanctions caused insurance companies to stop insuring gas-carrying vessels going to Syria, leading - in the peak of winter - to serious supply shortages and another increase in energy prices.[4] Greek Orthodox Bishop Elias Toumeh, who lives near Homs, warned last week of the consequences.[5] As Bishop Toumeh explained, despite the abatement in combat, "there is hardly gas, fuel, and no electricity." "The people are suffering." The Bishop warned, "Many would like to remain in the country, but they do not have the minimum of what they need."

Sanctions against Third-Party States

Far from seeking to improve the situation of the civilian population, Brussels and Washington have further tightened their sanctions. January 21, the European Council imposed new punitive measures against eleven Syrian entrepreneurs and five enterprises. This brings the total to 270 individuals and 72 organizations being affected by EU measures, which include an oil embargo, diverse financial sanctions, as well as other export restrictions. The US House of Representatives and Senate have also passed another sanctions package that President Donald Trump only needs to sign into law. It not only imposes sanctions on Syria, itself, but on any company or country that facilitates the government's reconstruction programs.[6] It can be taken for granted that western companies will not engage in activities in Syria and the western sanctions will continue to block reconstruction. Washington's sanctions on Iran - which have led to European companies' most extensive retreat from that country - serve as a model.[7]

Alternatives to the West

According to an analysis by the European Council on Foreign Relations, designated as a "pan-European" think tank headquartered in Berlin, the new EU/US sanctions will have two effects. On the one hand, they, in effect, will open Syria up to companies from the two countries - Iran and Russia - the West is seeking to push out of Damascus. Alone in the week following the imposition of the new EU sanctions, Syrian and Iranian authorities concluded nine declarations of intent concerning their expansion of cooperation, noted ECFR. Syria, Iran and Iraq want to cooperate more closely particularly in the energy sector. If this happens, not only will Syria make economic progress, but Iran will have "more access to the Syrian market."[8] This carries the prospect of a dispute between Washington and its Arab allies, particularly the United Arab Emirates, one of Iran's most bitter enemies, which has recently begun a degree of cooperation with Syria, also to roll back Teheran's influence, at least economically.[9] In response, the Trump administration has massively increased pressure on Abu Dhabi - to comprehensively abide by its sanctions - as in the case with Iran.[10] If this is succeeds, the road will be free for Iran, Russia, and China to set up shop in Syria, without western or Arab competition. It is uncertain how the West will react to losing, in the end, all influence in Damascus.

"Inhumane and Destructive"

The second consequence concerns the civilian population. As the ECFR paper notes, a "new war "is in the making. That is the "one the West is waging on the Syrian economy."[11] It will also have a "hugely detrimental impact on the most vulnerable members of Syria's population." One Syrian official pointed out, "the economic war" is "far worse than the military one." "The economic one enters into every single household and no one is untouched by it."[12] Following the failed attempt to overthrow the Assad government, primarily with the help of Islamist, and jihadi militias, the economic war obviously now aims to drive the population deliberately into misery, to force them again to rise up in insurrection. The ECFR, which qualifies the sanctions as "inhumane and destructive," concludes that the EU/US sanctions reveal a scorched earth policy that indiscriminately and arbitrarily punishes ordinary Syrians."


[1] National Agenda for the Future of Syria: Humanitarian Impact of Syria-Related Unilateral Restrictive Measures. Office of the United Nations Resident Coordinator in the Syrian Arab Republic. 16.05.2016.

[2] Rania Khalek: U.S. and EU Sanctions Are Punishing Ordinary Syrians and Crippling Aid Work, U.N. Report Reveals. 28.09.2016.

[3] Nabih Bulos: For many Syrians, "smart" sanctions are anything but. 24.12.2018.

[4] Nour Samaha: The economic war on Syria: Why Europe risks losing. 11.02.2019.

[5] Syrien: Weihbischof warnt vor neuer Flüchtlingswelle. 15.02.2019.

[6] H.R. 31.

[7] See also War of Sanctions Against Iran.

[8] Nour Samaha: The economic war on Syria: Why Europe risks losing. 11.02.2019.

[9] Giorgio Cafiero: US-Gulf tensions mount over restrictions on Syria reconstruction. 27.01.2019.

[10] Ghaida Ghantous, Michael Georgy: U.S. pressing Gulf states to keep Syria isolated: sources. 18.02.2019.

[11], [12] Nour Samaha: The economic war on Syria: Why Europe risks losing. 11.02.2019.