University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

The United States has a long history of enacting sanctions on Syria, beginning in 1979 with the designation of Syria as a “state sponsor of terrorism.” Initial measures were limited to restrictions on weapons transfers and targeted sanctions on government officials and entities. After 2004, the U.S. sanctions broadened to encompass a ban on exports to Syria, with the exception of food and medical supplies. In response to the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011, the United States, the European Union, and other countries imposed general sanctions, cutting off nearly all trade between Syria, the United States, and the European Union.

In December 2019, employing the maximum pressure strategy, the U.S. Congress enacted a new category of secondary sanctions under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, prohibiting financial transactions and trade between Syria and all other countries. The stated purpose was to coerce Syrian President Bashar Assad into making political concessions, notably allowing for a political transition to a post-Assad era. However, these sanctions backfired as the Syrian military and security services have remained loyal to Assad and Iran increased its involvement in Syria, further destabilizing the region. The maximum pressure strategy also has had disastrous impacts on Syria’s economy and its population, reducing the overall quality of life for ordinary citizens, impeding their access to basic needs and services, and decimating the Syrian middle class.

The sanctions have created obstacles for U.S. and international humanitarian assistance intended to help Syrian civilians. In particular, secondary sanctions on Syrian financial institutions have complicated the transfers of funds for humanitarian aid, as they create significant additional costs and delays in providing assistance. Donors seeking to finance early recovery projects find themselves in a legal quandary because of sanctions. Some of their projects may not meet the definition of humanitarian work as defined by donor officials, who view them as legitimizing the government of Syria. These obstacles may apply even to projects with clear impact on vital services, such as bread production and repairing water pumps or electricity networks.

Amidst these economic, humanitarian, and legal uncertainties, an urgent need exists for a concerted international effort to broaden and improve the effectiveness of humanitarian exceptions. Continuous dialogue is needed between sanctioning authorities, donors, humanitarian actors, banks, and financial sector regulators, with the goal of making it easier for humanitarian actors to comply with the sanctions framework. A system should be created to provide regular monitoring, evaluation, and reporting on the unintended consequences of sanctions on humanitarian activities. A special financial channel should be established between a correspondent bank and a private bank in Syria to facilitate the work of Damascus-based humanitarian organizations.

A more nuanced approach to implementing sanctions is also needed. Rather than treating sanctions as a purely punitive pressure tool, an alternative diplomatic approach would offer sanction relief to incentivize the Syrian government toward political reform, thus reshaping sanctions into a conflict transformation mechanism.

During the first half of 2021, the Biden administration put forward confidence-building measures. Rather than announcing new sanctions designations under the Caesar Civilian Protection Act, the Office of Foreign Assets Control released a general license in June exempting COVID-19 related activities from sanctions. This was a significant goodwill gesture from the U.S. that opened space for reciprocal steps from Syria and improved the environment for U.S.-Russia collaboration on Syria.

To create further opportunities for addressing humanitarian needs and promoting Syrian government reform, the Carter Center recommends a step-for-step process of offering sanctions relief in exchange for regime concessions and reforms.

The U.S. could offer the Syrian government three types of incentives:

  • Diplomatic incentives, including a range of steps such as reestablishment of diplomatic relations at ambassadorial, chargé d’affaires, and political officer levels, and creating openings for potential Syrian participation in international fora;
  • Reconstruction assistance that expands existing funding for humanitarian relief and early recovery to include activities such as rebuilding Syrian civilian infrastructure; and
  • Sanctions easing, including sunset clauses and steps to unwind some and eventually all sanctions that the U.S. has imposed on Syria, with the potential for “snapback” sanctions and removal of other incentives if the Syrian government fails to honor its commitments.

In exchange, the Syrian government would be expected to take steps such as enabling unhindered countrywide humanitarian access; accounting for, and releasing political prisoners; establishing a dignified reception for returning refugees; providing civilian protection; assuring the removal of all remaining chemical weapons; and enacting political as well as security sector reforms.

This piece was co-authored by members of The Carter Center’s Syria Project team and Conflict Resolution Program. Authors include Stacia George, director; Hrair Balian, senior advisor; Nancy Azar, senior program associate; and Annie Charif, program associate.