u s sanctions relief for syria troubles assad regime opponents

Washington has temporarily eased sanctions on the authoritarian government of President Bashar al-Assad to allow humanitarian aid to flow freely after a disastrous earthquake struck Syria.

When a catastrophic earthquake struck Syria last month, President Bashar al-Assad did not declare a state of emergency nor a day of mourning for the victims. It was days before he visited the stricken areas.

But from Day 1, his authoritarian government called for the lifting of Western sanctions.

The United States initially pushed back, insisting that the sanctions did not inhibit humanitarian aid. But then Washington about-faced, easing banking restrictions for six months to allow earthquake relief to flow freely to Syria. And Europe followed suit.

The earthquake, on Feb. 6, has already been a political boon for Mr. al-Assad, as Arab leaders who once shunned him sent condolences and planeloads of aid. Now, the easing of sanctions is raising concerns that the president and his inner circle stand to reap considerable financial gains that can be used to shore up their support base.

“The regime, which is already using the earthquake to make political gains, is going to use it for reconstruction and to solidify its position,” said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute and a former adviser to the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

“This allows transactions to the government of Syria, and as long as it says ‘earthquake relief,’ you’re good to go, apparently,” he added. “That’s extraordinary for a regime with this track record.”

Syria’s government has been targeted by longstanding sanctions over grave human rights violations during the country’s 12-year civil war, including the use of chemical weapons against its own people.

Once those sanctions were loosened three days after the earthquake, Syrian dissidents and former U.S. officials said that no guardrails or oversight mechanisms were put in place to prevent the government from taking advantage of the eased banking restrictions to funnel money into the country and into its own coffers. They also warned that the regime would divert humanitarian aid, like food and tents, being sent to victims of the natural disaster for its own uses.

Syrian Arab Red Crescent workers in the government-held city of Latakia sorting boxes of aid donated last month by the United Arab Emirates.Amr Alfiky/Reuters

The State Department said the Treasury Department had tools to prevent abuse of the sanctions relief, but did not explain what they were, and the Treasury Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Syrian dissidents like Mohammed Ghanem, a political adviser and government relations director for the Washington-based advocacy group Syrian American Council, have watched with dismay in recent years as international focus and U.S. policy have moved away from trying to oust Mr. al-Assad. As a result, he said, maintaining the sanctions has become even more critical.

Government opponents have broader concerns, as well.

One is that the sanctions relief will be extended for a longer period. Another is that this could be the start of Mr. al-Assad’s fuller reintegration in the international community with virtually no consequences for the abuses during the war.

Mr. al-Assad’s opponents say the government can now funnel money into the country under the guise of earthquake relief and instead use it for reconstruction of buildings damaged in the civil war — destruction largely wrought by the government and its chief military backer, Russia.

Syria experts and former U.S. officials said that the easing of sanctions was not even necessary given that Western sanctions already included exemptions to allow humanitarian aid through.

But a State Department spokesperson said European and Arab states and aid groups had expressed concern that the sanctions might prevent them from providing earthquake-related assistance to Syria. Many banks have refused to process financial transactions with Syria for fear of running afoul of the sanctions, even though they are subject to the exemptions.

While the sanctions are meant to punish government and military officials, they end up affecting entire sectors of the economy and many ordinary Syrians. About 90 percent of Syrians live below the poverty line, according to the United Nations.

A mother with her daughter, who is receiving treatment at the Bab al-Hawa hospital in opposition-held Idlib Province of Syria.Emily Garthwaite for The New York Times

The quake killed at least 6,000 people in northwestern Syria and more than 45,000 in neighboring Turkey. It affected nearly 11 million people in Syria, including about four million who were already reliant on humanitarian aid for basic needs like food and clean water, according to the United Nations.

Since the disaster struck, money and humanitarian aid loaded onto planes and trucks have flowed into the government-controlled parts of Syria.

The country has been carved up into a number of zones of control over the course of the civil war, and the government routinely prevents aid from reaching opposition territory.

The earthquake hit both government and opposition-held territory, with most of the deaths on the opposition side. For the first few days afterward, no international aid was delivered to the opposition-controlled corner of northwestern Syria.

The Assad government regularly diverts humanitarian aid for its own purposes, including funneling some of it to the military, said Natasha Hall, a fellow with the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has tracked aid diversion in Syria for years.

In 2019, Human Rights Watch released a report accusing the regime of developing a policy and legal framework that allowed it to divert aid to fund its atrocities, to punish those perceived as opponents and to benefit loyalists.

Syrians last month in Atarib protesting a lack of international aid.Emily Garthwaite for The New York Times

Increasingly, the government has channeled aid through two organizations with close ties to Mr. al-Assad’s inner circle: the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the Syria Trust for Development, according to Ms. Hall and Joel Rayburn, the U.S. special envoy for Syria during the Trump administration.

Two Syrians involved in the distribution of aid in government territory told The New York Times that, in the few weeks since the earthquake struck, they had already witnessed the government diverting aid. They asked not to be identified when speaking critically about the government out of fears for their security.

They said much of the diverted aid had been channeled either to provincial government offices or to the Syria Trust for Development, an organization connected to the president’s wife, Asma al-Assad. That group, in turn, has put a good portion of the diverted supplies in storage, these people said, adding that only a fraction had been delivered to quake victims.

Syrians who have lost homes and are in need of basic assistance have at times openly complained — a rarity in government-controlled areas — saying that they have seen news about planes from across the region arriving with humanitarian assistance but almost nothing being distributed on the ground.

The Iraqi militia Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces, which is backed by the Assad ally Iran, has sent several waves of aid convoys to government-controlled Syrian territory and has tried to insist on doing its own distribution to head off any interference by the Syrian authorities, according to the two Syrians who spent time with the convoy.

In the city of Aleppo, in government territory, the Syria Trust for Development seized 100 boxes of baby formula, saying they needed to be tested.

Residents living in a makeshift village received mattresses and other humanitarian aid last month in the opposition-held city of Afrin, Syria.Omar Haj Kadour/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In Latakia Province, a stronghold of the Assad government, the Iraqi militia was made to hand over all of its aid to the Syria Trust for Development, which in turn distributed only bread, juice and ramen soup packages, the two Syrians said.

The Kurdish-led authorities who control a semiautonomous area of northeastern Syria that was largely unscathed by the earthquake sent 100 fuel trucks to Kurdish neighborhoods in Aleppo. But at a Syrian military checkpoint outside the city, the convoy was prevented from passing, said Ilham Ahmed, a Kurdish politician and a chairwoman of the Syrian Democratic Council, the civil authority in the semiautonomous region.

She said it stayed there for 10 days before it was allowed to go through on the condition that the government takes 60 of the 100 fuel trucks while allowing the rest to be delivered to the intended recipients.

“We don’t know what the regime did with it,” Ms. Ahmed said of the 60 trucks. “We don’t know if it went to the afflicted or not.”

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.

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