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Baby Health in Winter Catastrophe upon catastrophe in Syria

Baby Health in Winter

Mother Agnes blamed shortages on “ongoing conflict,” but also on sanctions and border closings. “Thanks to the Lord we have not had casualties,” she told me in mid-July, “because we do not have ventilators.”

Ventilators are one of several medical items that could fall under a “dual use” category in U.S. sanctions. That means they may require a special exemption, because their parts can be disassembled and used for weapons.

The latest sanctions are layered on previous U.S., EU, and U.K. sanctions of the Assad regime. These have sparked an unusual outcry from Syrian church leaders and the international aid organizations supporting their relief work throughout the war. 

Maronite Archbishop Joseph Trobji of Aleppo called them “inhuman,” and other prominent activists have been critical, too. Baroness Caroline Cox, a member of the British House of Lords and advocate for persecuted religious groups (also WORLD’s 2004 Daniel of the Year), issued a statement on Aug. 1 saying the sanctions “have caused dire humanitarian consequences” for Syrians trying to rebuild in areas retaken by the Assad regime—which includes areas of nearly all the country’s Christian population, who have been forced from Idlib and areas under Turkish and militant control. 

Cox’s own relief organization, Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, has been unable to support the Syrian Orthodox Church’s projects to rebuild in Christian areas, including Maaloula—an ancient Christian town taken by Islamic militants in 2013 but retaken a year later by the Syrian army.

Writing in the medical journal The Lancet, health experts from Oxford University and the University of Baghdad warned that applying sanctions to fragile state-run health systems during a pandemic threatens “a winter surge of COVID-19.”

THE CAESAR SYRIA Civilian Protection Act became law as part of the 2020 defense authorization bill signed by President Donald Trump at year’s end. It expands the Treasury Department’s ability to restrict economic activities of businesses, individuals, and Assad-related institutions. It can also restrict Syria’s central bank if Treasury determines it’s involved in money laundering. And it can be applied to foreigners who have dealings with the regime.

So far, Caesar Act sanctions have targeted Assad’s 18-year-old son, Hafez; relative Zuhair Tawfiq al-Assad, who leads the Syrian army’s first division; and Syrian businessman Wassim Anwar al-Qattan and nine business entities linked to al-Qattan and the regime.

“The Assad regime’s military has become a symbol of brutality, repression, and corruption,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “They have killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, detained and tortured peaceful protesters, and destroyed schools, hospitals, and markets without regard to human life.” 

What concerns humanitarian groups and others are Caesar Act provisions applying to outsiders who sell or provide goods and services to anyone with ties to the Syrian government. That language has “a chilling effect,” one aid group leader told me, on humanitarian supplies to Syrian nongovernmental organizations, since they must be registered with the government and participate in state-run entities, like hospitals. Such groups may apply to the U.S. Treasury Department for exemptions, but “the process is opaque,” he said, speaking on condition that he not be named for security reasons.

The European Commission and the Treasury Department have produced written guidance for humanitarian exemptions, guidance “that can be fine-tuned to protect humanitarian efforts,” said David Adesnik, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who favors Caesar Act sanctions. 

“Critics of Western sanctions tend to miss the big picture,” Adesnik wrote in a paper published in June. They focus narrowly on deprivation “without also mentioning that Western governments have sent billions of dollars of humanitarian assistance to Syria each year.”

According to USAID, the United States has provided $10.6 billion since 2012, which includes funds to the United Nations and aid to Syrian refugees living outside their country. Such aid, Adesnik said, “addresses the need of civilians, while sanctions seek to deprive the regime of revenue it can direct to military offensives, offshore bank accounts, or other undesirable uses.” 

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