Last Thursday, the US President Joe Biden’s administration lifted sanctions on Syria after being exposed to four days of devastating footage from the earthquake disaster zone in southern Turkey and northern Syria. It seems that the US government could no longer sustain the embargo when thousands of bodies were being dug out of the rubble and millions were struggling with cold, hunger, and injuries. They didn’t want to look like the only nation not offering aid to the devastated populations. However, the recent change in policy does not fundamentally change the fact that the sanctions imposed by the US and its allies in Europe, Canada, and Australia were always a criminal policy, which the earthquake disaster only made more apparent. The new exemption allows the Syrian government to receive earthquake relief for six months before the embargo resumes.
The West has imposed sanctions on Syria, which have resulted in collective punishment on the wider population. Syrians have been punished for living under a government that they did not elect, but which the US is determined to remove at any cost. The West imposed these sanctions during a civil war that turned into a proxy war. The US and its allies sponsored rebel groups, including jihadists, who failed to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad. Many of these extremist groups came from neighboring countries where the West had previously overthrown regimes. As a result, millions of Syrians were forced to flee their homes, leading to widespread poverty and malnutrition. Even as the fighting ended, Syria’s economy continued to decline due to western sanctions and the seizure of oil fields and agricultural land by the US and others. This man-made catastrophe has compounded the effects of last week’s earthquake, leaving Syrians destitute and struggling to cope with further disaster.
The West’s approach to causing hardship in Syria over the past ten years was based on a familiar tactic that the US uses against its enemies. The idea was to make life unbearable for Syrians, which would motivate them to revolt against their leaders in the hope of finding a better alternative. However, this approach failed, as it has in the past with countries like Cuba and Iran. Despite its ineffectiveness, the policy of causing suffering in the name of humanitarianism continued to be enforced. Last week, when the earthquake struck, the US’s insistence on keeping the sanctions in place shifted the policy from being simply inhumane to being downright macabre.
The lifting of sanctions on Syria should not be viewed as an act of US benevolence, but rather as an opportunity to question the rationale behind their imposition. The West’s policy is based on the belief that if Syrians are made desperate enough, they will rise up against their government. This approach has not worked, but the US and its allies continue to maintain the sanctions to avoid admitting defeat in their efforts to unseat President Assad. This callous disregard for the suffering of millions of Syrians exposes the fact that the West was never really interested in the well-being of the Syrian people. The contrast with the West’s treatment of Ukraine is striking, as no expense is spared to help the “European-looking” Ukrainians, while the darker-skinned Syrians are abandoned to their fate. This kind of racial discrimination is not true humanitarianism, but a cynical manipulation of people’s suffering to further political goals.
To fully comprehend the West’s supposed humanitarianism, one must delve deeper into their motives. Arming Ukraine while withholding basic necessities from Syrians is not as contradictory as it appears since both policies work towards the same objective: Western supremacy. This shared goal is unrelated to the well-being of ordinary Ukrainians or Syrians. Russia is the common enemy that the West aims to weaken, and the Syrian government’s relationship with Russia is why the West sought to destroy the Assad government. Ukraine was becoming a de facto NATO base near Russia, which is why Russia wanted to intimidate Kyiv and why the US wanted to support it militarily. The West’s foreign policy is not based on ethical principles, but rather on how to serve the interests of Western, primarily US, power. The West continues to play the Great Game of colonial power struggles to optimize their geopolitical position and gain global military dominance and control over vital financial resources such as oil.
The US and its allies didn’t immediately consider how to help the people of Syria after an earthquake struck the country. Instead, they blamed the Syrian government for preventing aid from reaching the worst-affected areas in the north, some of which are still under rebel control. The former head of UN humanitarian affairs, Mark Lowcock, complained that Turkey’s cooperation was necessary to get aid into these areas. However, the Syrian government approved the delivery of humanitarian aid to some areas in the northwest of the country that it does not control, but the al-Qaeda-affiliated militant group HTS refused to allow aid from government-held parts of Syria.
The Assad government may have secured a majority of Syrian territory, but it does not control the entire country, and large portions of the north are controlled by extremist groups and the remnants of the Islamic State. This fragmentation is making it challenging to deliver aid, and the Assad government is concerned about allowing al-Qaeda to take credit for dealing with the emergency, as it could win support from Syrians and Arabs beyond. If al-Qaeda is seen as helping the affected communities, it could undermine the government’s authority and lead to renewed civil war and violence.
The argument being made is not that the Assad government is blameless, but that it is never likely that outside interference in toppling governments will result in humanitarian outcomes. The Nuremberg trials after World War II declared aggression against a nation’s sovereign territory as the “supreme international crime,” which creates its own unpredictable consequences and can tear a country apart. The West’s previous actions, such as the occupation of Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, and the toppling of Gaddafi’s government, have not resulted in the promised “freedom and democracy” but rather in creating a vacuum of authority and allowing for extremists and arms trafficking. The situation in Syria is another example of the legacy of Western interference in the Middle East, with ordinary Syrians suffering as a result. While the Assad government may be responsible for some of the suffering, it is too fragile to cede any power to its opponents due to years of proxy war and western sanctions.