Christian leaders urge Biden to lift sanctions on Syria

A member of the Syrian Arab-Kurdish forces places a cross in the rubble ahead of a Christmas celebration at the heavily-damaged Armenian Catholic Church of the Martyrs in the city centre of the eastern Syrian city of Raqa on December 26, 2017, following a mine clarence operation at the site a few days earlier. A U.S.-backed offensive ousted the Islamic State group from Raqa in October but the city has been left ravaged by fighting.
A member of the Syrian Arab-Kurdish forces places a cross in the rubble ahead of a Christmas celebration at the heavily-damaged Armenian Catholic Church of the Martyrs in the city centre of the eastern Syrian city of Raqa on December 26, 2017, following a mine clarence operation at the site a few days earlier. A U.S.-backed offensive ousted the Islamic State group from Raqa in October but the city has been left ravaged by fighting. | DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Prominent Christians and human rights activists have urged the Biden administration to end U.S. sanctions on Syria which they say have contributed to the starvation and poverty of its citizens.

In letters sent to both President Biden and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday, signatories urge the world leaders to "help Syrians to alleviate a humanitarian crisis, which causes profound suffering to the civilian population and threatens a new wave of instability in the Middle East." 

John Eibner, international president of Christian Solidarity International, forwarded the letter to Biden in an appeal to end "U.S. economic sanctions that kill, displace, impoverish and psychologically damage Syria’s civilians.”

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Eibner stressed that the over 90 signatories who are calling for an end to sanctions, “all have sterling records of religious, diplomatic, legislative, military, academic, human rights and/or humanitarian service.

"At the center stand Syrian Christian leaders who remain with their respective flocks as their country approaches the brink of not just hunger, but of starvation, according [to] the U.N. World Food Program," he added. 

In the letter sent to Johnson, signatories urge the prime minister to take action by: “1) Endorsing the U.N. Special Rapporteur’s recommendation; 2) Terminating the U.K.'s economic-sector sanctions against the Syrian people; 3) Protecting U.K. citizens and institutions from the coercion of the United States’ extraterritorial and extrajudicial secondary sanctions.” 

The sanctions referenced in the letter to Johnson were imposed by the U.S. government on June 17, 2020, as part of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019, The Washington Times reported. The Act was "named after a Syrian military photographer who smuggled out 55,000 digital images of the destruction the civil war has caused."

The sanctions further devalued Syria's currency and targeted companies that conduct business with Syria or President Bashar Assad and his wife, Asma, whom former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had described as “one of Syria’s most notorious war profiteers,” The Epoch Times reported. The travel restrictions and financial sanctions also blacklisted Assad’s siblings, select senior generals, and Iranian militia.

The escalation of sanctions was intended to further weaken the Assad regime in an attempt to force it back into U.N. negotiations and to end the country's ongoing war. 

On Sept. 30, 2020, in an attempt to oust Assad, the U.S. Treasury and State Departments blacklisted top Syrian officials and "alleged financiers, including the central-bank governor and an intelligence chief," The Wall Street Journal reported at the time. 

The U.S. government's actions "were designed to hold individuals accountable for helping a government accused by Western officials and human-rights groups of committing war crimes throughout its long-running civil war, including the use of chemical weapons," WSJ added. 

The sanctions also marked "the third anniversary of an attack that killed 32 civilians, including more than a dozen children, in the northwestern town of Armanaz near the Turkish border." 

The letter to Biden insists that unless sanctions are lifted, “Millions of hard-pressed Syrians will go to bed hungry and cold tonight.” 

According to estimates from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights 585,000 people have been killed in the war that began in March 2011. In 2010, Syria had a population of 21.4 million people. Due to refugees fleeing and deaths, the country now has a population of 17.7 million people, according to World Population Review.

In May 2011, the U.S. ordered sanctions against the Syrian government in response to Assad’s human rights violations. Syria has remained under export sanctions and is not allowed to receive most forms of U.S. assistance. However, the U.S. remains the largest humanitarian donor to Syria, giving $12.2 billion in humanitarian aid to "vulnerable individuals" and those who are "displaced in the region since the start of the crisis," according to the State Department

After 10 years of civil war between the Assad regime and various rebel groups, Christian Solidarity International and others have warned that sanctions have further impoverished Syria.

"Although the fighting has now ceased in much of the country, over the past year, the U.S. and its allies have ratcheted up the sanctions on Syria, sending its currency into a tailspin and pushing millions of Syrians into poverty," CSI said in a statement. 

"Sanctions on Syria make it extremely difficult to import the medications and medical equipment necessary to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and other illnesses and conditions, such as cancer, kidney failures, and schizophrenia," the group added. 

The U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on Unilateral Coercive Measures, professor Alena Douhan, also recommended lifting the U.S. sanctions.

"I am concerned that sanctions imposed under the Caesar Act may exacerbate the already dire humanitarian situation in Syria, especially in the course of COVID-19 pandemic, and put the Syrian people at even greater risk of human rights violations," Douhan said in a statement back in December.

"When it announced the first sanctions under the Caesar Act in June 2020, the United States said it did not intend for them to harm the Syrian population," she added. "Yet enforcement of the Act may worsen the existing humanitarian crisis, depriving the Syrian people of the chance to rebuild their basic infrastructure."

U.S. Special Envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn countered Douhan's claims, asserting that Assad is to blame for Syria’s suffering, not U.S. sanctions.

"The Special Rapporteur’s attempt to blame Syria’s economic crisis on U.S. sanctions is misguided and false. The blame for Syria’s economic situation and humanitarian crisis falls on Assad’s brutal war against the Syrian people, not on U.S. sanctions," said Rayburn in a statement last month, adding that a U.N. investigation found that Assad, not sanctions are responsible. 

"The U.N. has shown the world the substantial evidence that the Assad regime and its foreign enablers have dropped bombs impacting hospitals, schools, markets, and homes.  Furthermore, the regime continues to obstruct the U.N. from delivering humanitarian aid ..."

Rayburn added: "The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act and other targeted sanctions on the Assad regime and its supporters seek accountability for the regime’s atrocities and to cut off the resources Assad uses to fuel the conflict. They do not target humanitarian-related trade, assistance, or activities."

It's been reported that the starvation of Syrians has resulted from the actions of many parties, including the Assad regime, rebel groups, and the Islamic State terrorist group. Crops have been burned, bakeries and markets have been attacked and blockades have been enforced as a war tactics.

“Ten years ago, Syria was a breadbasket for the region. Today it is on the verge of not just hunger, but of starvation, according to the World Food Program,” the letter sent to Biden adds. “Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic is raging through the country, unhindered by a healthcare system largely destroyed over ten years of war.”

“All of the actors struggling for power and influence, and the various weapons they use, have contributed to the suffering of the Syrian people over the past ten years,” Eibner said.

“But today there is growing awareness that these sanctions are a disproportionate use of economic force and a form of collective punishment of innocent civilians, which harms the weakest, most vulnerable members of society more than those in power,” he added. 

The letters concludes by asserting that U.S. national interests can be achieved without imposing economic sanctions. 

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