The War after the War

EU imposes new sanctions on Syria, blocks reconstruction. Critics speak of a "scorched earth policy".

BERLIN/DAMASCUS (Own report) - The EU is expanding its sanctions on Syria, thus erecting new obstacles on the road to the country's reconstruction. The sanctions imposed last week affect several entrepreneurs, continuing the EU's practice of discouraging potential investors from participating in Syria's reconstruction. The Trump administration is pursuing the same objective with the sanctions it imposed last December, described by experts as far-reaching and possibly affecting individuals and enterprises in all countries and "isolating Syria for years to come." According to US experts, these sanctions could drive the population into poverty uprisings, thus reaching, what could not be achieved through warfare - the overthrow of the Bashar al Assad government. In the European Council on Foreign Relations this is referred to as the second "long war," this time with economic measures. Critics call it a "scorched earth policy."

First Reconstruction Measures

Syria's reconstruction has already begun, although at a slow pace. Contracts have also been granted to foreign firms. Iranian and Indian companies are participating in the renewal of the energy sector and mobile communications network.[1] China has its sights set on reconstruction projects in Syria as part of its New Silk Road. For some time, Arab countries have been showing interest in participating in the renewal of in this war-torn country's infrastructure and economy. Not only Jordan and Lebanon, its immediate neighbors, could benefit from lucrative business with Syria. The United Arab Emirates have also extended their feelers. This financially very strong country had reopened its embassy in Damascus in December 2018. In January 2019, it welcomed a Syrian business delegation in Abu Dhabi, led by a business man named on a US sanctions list, and in August 2019, it dispatched its own business delegation to the Damascus Trade Fair.[2] With their activities in Syria, the Emirates are pursuing geo-strategic goals. Abu Dhabi is now seeking with economic means to limit Iran's influence, which had significantly grown during the war.

EU Sanctions

While Syria's war-stricken population is yearning for rapid progress in reconstruction, western powers have been introducing measures over the past few years to retard or even block the infrastructure's restoration. Already at the beginning of 2019, the EU had expanded its sanctions and added eleven business executives, as well as five organizations to its growing list,[3] because they were involved in construction "and other projects promoted by the regime." EU officials were quoted, at the time, saying that they hoped the measures "will send a chilling effect through a business community that the Syrian government is now relying on to redevelop the country."[4] Last week another eight entrepreneurs and two more organizations were added to the list. The EU has now imposed punitive measures on a total of 277 persons and 71 organizations in reference to Syria.

The Caesar Act

In December 2019, the United States had passed its own sanctions law - the "Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act." The allegation of seeking to promote accountability for the human rights crimes committed by the Bashar al Assad government was the justification they gave. According to a Saudi-financed daily, the real objective, in fact, is to isolate the Assad government "for years to come."[5] The law foresees coercive economic measures against countries, enterprises and individuals, who militarily, economically or financially aid the Syrian government. Experts see it as exceptionally far-reaching. Any cooperation with the Damascus government's reconstruction projects will literally be punished by the USA. Whoever violates the Caesar Act must expect to come under harsh US sanctions. The law sends "a clear signal that no external actor should enter into business with or otherwise enrich such a regime, according to a press statement by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.[6]

Putsch through Poverty Uprisings

As US foreign policy experts openly admit, since it proved impossible to overthrow the Assad government militarily throughout the years since the rebellions began in 2011, the objective now is to try to run the government out of office with poverty uprisings. The Syrian economy "is collapsing," according to a current article in the leading periodical of US foreign policy. Assad is struggling to finance military campaigns. Food and fuel prices have risen sharply, "sparking protests against the government's economic policies." These protests seem "likely to grow," the Caesar Act measures are potentially "game changing."[7] By June, the US Treasury Department must evaluate whether Syria's central bank is complicit in money laundering, in which case "a cascade" of sanctions will be added. "At a minimum," they would severely restrict the regime's resources, and reinforce "the deepening instability in regime-controlled areas," according to the journal Foreign Affairs.

"An Economic Confrontation"

In reference to the approach taken by western powers, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) expressed, already back in September, the opinion that, "the idea that Syria’s effective reconstruction could be near at hand" is "a complete illusion."[8] That country will remain a cockpit of "intense geopolitical competition for many years." Reconstruction and the state of the wider economy represent the pivotal issues around which "this long war" will continue to unfold. Longstanding opponents of Assad, particularly those in the West, have a new sense of confidence that an economic confrontation plays to their strengths and promises "greater rewards than their previous military efforts." Of course, the West's approach will result "in the continued hollowing out of the Syrian state, for which the long-suffering Syrian people will continue to pay the highest price."

Scorched Earth Policy

That is correct. The situation of the Syrian population is already catastrophic. In the meantime, more than one out of five Syrians - according to the United Nations - are living below the poverty level. In many localities, according to the information portal of the German Association for International Cooperation (GIZ), "the infrastructure is nearly destroyed; streets, power and water supply lines are functioning at a reduced level or not at all." Many Syrian farmers "have lost their means of living through the war" and "of the country's former 130,000 production sites" only "about half are still standing."[9] Syria's lira has "lost around 90 percent of its value," since the war began, and "many everyday products have become scarce" - "which forces inflation even higher." Observers agree that sanctions will systematically exacerbate the plight of the population. Last year the ECFR referred to "a scorched earth policy that indiscriminately and arbitrarily punishes ordinary Syrians and threaten legitimate businesses."[10]


[1] See also Wiederaufbau in Syrien (IV).

[2] Kinda Makieh: UAE firms scout trade at Syria fair, defying U.S. pressure. 31.08.2019.

[3] Syrien: EU nimmt weitere elf Geschäftsleute und fünf Organisationen in die Sanktionsliste auf. 21.01.2019.

[4] Louisa Loveluck: Syria is ready to court investors, but Europe wants to prevent that. 23.01.2019.

[5] Ibrahim Hamidi: US Planning New Strategy to Isolate Damascus 'for Years' to Come. 25.02.2020.

[6] Passage of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019. 20.12.2019.

[7] Jennifer Cafarella: Time to Recommit to Syria. A Currency Crisis Has Created an Opportunity to Shape the War's End. 18.02.2020.

[8] Julien Barnes-Dacey: The geopolitics of reconstruction: Who will rebuild Syria? 16.09.2019.

[9] Marwan Abou Taam: Syrische Kriegswirtschaft. Dezember 2019.

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