A Biden administration decision to relax U.S. sanctions on Syria after the devastating earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria last month has drawn fierce criticism from some in Washington.
Those critics are wrong, though, when they claim this license was unnecessary, or that it somehow helps enrich or normalize the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Providing some limited sanctions relief to expedite aid to disaster-stricken Syrians was the right thing to do. Administration officials ought to say so, unabashedly, and to start standing up to these attacks on humanitarian aid and more sensible sanctions policy.
Days after the earthquake, the U.S. Treasury issued a general license authorizing earthquake relief that would otherwise have been prohibited by Syria sanctions. It likely translated to a larger, faster aid response, at a moment when size and speed really mattered.
The Biden administration has not effectively communicated the purpose and scope of this general license; when challenged to justify the license, administration officials have ducked and equivocated. That’s a shame, both because the license was the right move, and because attacks by Washington’s Syria hawks on this license and the administration’s responsible handling of Syria sanctions generally aren’t letting up.
Biden administration officials—and anyone who cares about Syria’s people, really—should defend a move on sanctions that was the humane way to respond to a natural disaster and a humanitarian crisis. After this earthquake, the Biden administration actually put Syrians first. That’s how U.S. policy on Syria ought to work, now and in future.
Catastrophe on Catastrophe
On February 6, a massive earthquake struck southern Turkey and neighboring areas in northwest Syria. The 7.8 magnitude earthquake was among the largest to hit the region in a century. The UN estimates, a month later, that the quake killed roughly 6,000 people in Syria, in addition to nearly 50,000 in Turkey. Tens of thousands remain missing, and hundreds of thousands are displaced. For Syrians, the earthquake was a double catastrophe—a natural disaster on top of Syria’s already extreme humanitarian crisis.
The earthquake largely affected areas along Syria’s Turkish border that are controlled by the Syrian opposition, but it also hit some Syrian-government-held areas, including in Lattakia and Aleppo governorates. In opposition-held areas, the emergency response was particularly dysfunctional. Those areas are ordinarily supported from Turkey, by aid agencies based in Turkish border provinces that were themselves hard-hit by the earthquake. Almost a week after the earthquake, the UN relief head said that his organization had “failed the people in north-west Syria.”
As the emergency response got underway, two political fights were playing out in parallel. First, there was a diplomatic battle over expanded humanitarian access to the opposition-held northwest; and second, a heated public debate over the impact of U.S. and other Western sanctions on earthquake relief.
In the earthquake’s aftermath, Syrian officials—but also others, importantly—argued that Western sanctions were hampering the emergency response and should be lifted. U.S. officials and sanctions proponents, for their part, insisted that sanctions did not impact earthquake relief because of existing humanitarian exemptions.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price was asked on February 6, immediately after the earthquake, whether Washington might reach out to the Syrian government or lift sanctions. Price responded: “I will make the point that it would be quite ironic, if not even counterproductive, for us to reach out to a government that has brutalized its people over the course of a dozen years now—gassing them, slaughtering them, being responsible for much of the suffering that they have endured.” Price stressed that U.S. aid to Syrians affected by the earthquake would be delivered through trusted humanitarian partners.
Days later, on February 9, Price was asked if U.S. sanctions were limiting the Syrian government’s ability to import equipment for search-and-rescue efforts or preventing Syrian-Americans and Syrians abroad from sending money to their families inside Syria. Price repeated that U.S. sanctions did not stand in the way of aid to Syria. “Our sanctions are in no way an impediment of our ability to provide humanitarian assistance to our humanitarian partners on the ground in Syria,” he said.
At issue, though, was not U.S. direct assistance—that is, “our ability” to support “our humanitarian partners.” Rather, at issue were all the other things urgently needed for the earthquake response that the United States could not itself contribute, and that sanctions do, in fact, seem to have impeded.
The Apparent Impacts of Sanctions
Some of the effects of Western sanctions were already baked in, before February 6; once the earthquake hit, it was already too late to address them. Sanctions have apparently contributed to the poverty and exhaustion of the Syrian state, and more recently to a debilitating fuel crisis. Sanctions worsened the lack of working equipment for Syrian civil defense teams and shortages of fuel for emergency vehicles in the days and hours following the earthquake, which likely cost Syrian lives.
Yet sanctions also affected efforts to mobilize international support after the earthquake. The most clear-cut example was crowdfunding platform GoFundMe’s initial refusal to host most fundraisers benefiting earthquake victims in Syria, with the exception of fundraisers for some preapproved nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). GoFundMe was not only suspending grassroots fundraising campaigns; it was also reportedly closing the accounts of the users attempting to organize them. “As a U.S. company we are required to follow our Terms of Service, payment industry requirements, and applicable laws, including those set by the US Treasury Department, which prohibit GoFundMe from allowing fundraisers meeting this criteria to raise money on our platform,” GoFundMe reportedly e-mailed one user who attempted to raise money for Syrians affected by the earthquake.
At issue are all the urgent needs that the United States cannot directly contribute—and which sanctions have impeded.
Some assumed that this was a problem of “overcompliance” with U.S. sanctions. “Overcompliance” is the phenomenon whereby financial institutions and other private firms avoid even technically permissible transactions that, because of sanctions, they consider unacceptably risky. This is also called sanctions’ “chilling effect,” or “de-risking.” Aid organizations, for example, benefit from humanitarian exemptions, but they are obliged to transact with banks and suppliers. These private companies are wary of falling afoul of sanctions, and the amounts of money at stake in a smaller, poorer country like Syria—to finance aid operations, or for permitted commercial trade—are often too small for those outside firms to justify taking on major sanctions risk; for them, it’s easier to just avoid Syria-related business entirely. All this can limit the real usefulness of humanitarian exemptions written into sanctions.
Yet GoFundMe’s rejection of Syria-related fundraisers may not have been an issue of overcompliance at all—rather, it seems like plain “compliance.” The United States’ Syrian Sanctions Regulations include humanitarian exemptions for NGOs, as well as exemptions for the work of UN-linked bodies (“International Organizations”) and the U.S. government. Yet those regulations and the U.S. Treasury’s Syria Sanctions FAQs make clear that while U.S. citizens and residents are permitted to send “noncommercial, personal remittances” to Syria, they are not authorized to send charitable donations directly to Syria or to NGOs in Syria. When GoFundMe shut down distressed Syrians’ fundraisers for friends and family inside Syria, then, the platform seems to have been implementing U.S. sanctions to the letter.
Treasury’s General License
The Biden administration then seemed to reverse itself. On February 9, the U.S. Treasury issued a general license that authorized, with only a few qualifications, “all transactions related to earthquake relief efforts in Syria that would otherwise be prohibited by the Syrian Sanctions Regulations” for a period of 180 days. Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo, announcing the license, said it aimed to make clear that U.S. sanctions did not stand in the way of earthquake relief. “While U.S. sanctions programs already contain robust exemptions for humanitarian efforts,” Adeyemo said, “today Treasury is issuing a blanket General License to authorize earthquake relief efforts so that those providing assistance can focus on what’s needed most: saving lives and rebuilding.” The license only affected sanctions on the Assad government and linked entities, not counterterrorism sanctions on the Islamist militant group that controls much of Syria’s opposition-held northwest and that is subject to a different sanctions regime.
Some people seem to have misunderstood what the general license really meant. Members of Congress critical of the license have characterized it as an authorization for “direct transactions with the Assad regime.” These lawmakers likely seized on language in the license that barred transactions with sanctioned entities except for those that qualify as the “Government of Syria.” Yet that carve-out for dealings with the “Government of Syria” already existed in U.S. sanctions regulations. NGOs and UN bodies already benefited from an identical authorization for transactions with the Syrian government, something that permitted them to, for example, pay taxes and fees incidental to their work.
The license’s real import seems to be that it broadened the set of actors permitted to contribute to earthquake relief, to include entities such as grassroots fundraisers, private companies, and foreign governments. Treasury’s Adeyemo, for example, said the license “expands upon these broad humanitarian authorizations already in effect under the [Syrian Sanctions Regulations] for NGOs, international organizations (IOs), and the U.S. government.” A “compliance communique” published later by Treasury said the license “expands upon existing humanitarian authorizations to enable foreign governments and private companies to provide support to earthquake relief efforts in Syria and provides additional assurances to financial institutions who process such transactions.”
Why did it matter that the license covered, for example, private companies? It mattered because it helped mitigate the “chilling effect” and its impact on even permitted humanitarian aid. The general license signaled to private companies, generally, that U.S. authorities would not penalize them for contributing to earthquake relief, and it told financial institutions in particular that their customers, not the institutions themselves, were primarily responsible for sanctions compliance.
Biden administration officials followed up the license with an outreach campaign to ensure the license was actually usable. The White House organized a phone briefing for Syrian-American groups on U.S. efforts to respond to the earthquake, including the general license; and the U.S. Treasury likewise held a roundtable call about the license for NGOs. The State Department published Arabic translations of the Treasury’s press release announcing the license and of the license itself. And throughout, U.S. officials consistently advertised a Treasury compliance and feedback hotline, so would-be contributors to earthquake relief could call or email to expeditiously resolve sanctions-related questions.
Treasury’s compliance communique, published on February 21, additionally clarifies the general license’s scope. In Q-and-A format, the Treasury document provides examples of permitted earthquake relief and confirms, for example, that U.S. citizens and residents could raise relief funds through crowdfunding. It also confirmed that the license permitted assistance in Syrian government-held areas and support to government-affiliated search-and-rescue teams.
The Biden administration’s outreach on sanctions and this license complemented other elements of the U.S. earthquake response, including direct U.S. contributions to earthquake relief, appeals for others to send assistance, and a diplomatic push for expanded humanitarian access to northwest Syria from Turkey.
Some Positive Effect
The general license made at least some difference to the relief effort. Again, GoFundMe is the clearest illustration: days after the license was issued, the platform appended an update on “how to safely fundraise for Syria” to its page on helping victims of the earthquake. That update specifically referenced the general license: “Following the updated Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) guidance released on February 9, individuals can now use GoFundMe to raise funds for humanitarian aid efforts in Syria, including through personal remittances to those impacted by this crisis.” Even then, some fundraisers reportedly still had to endure a lengthy review before collecting donations. But at least those fundraisers could move forward.
GoFundMe’s about-face is unambiguous evidence that the sanctions relief made at least some positive difference.
The point here is not that GoFundMe fundraisers made a critically important difference in the earthquake response—although I think they probably mattered to the people who organized them, and to their friends and family inside Syria. Rather, the point is that GoFundMe’s about-face is unambiguous evidence that the license made at least some positive difference.
The impacts of both sanctions and sanctions exemptions or licenses are typically more indirect and difficult to conclusively demonstrate. By contrast, the cause-and-effect impact of this license was clear and provable, at least in part.
The license also likely had effects more far-reaching than just allowing grassroots fundraisers, albeit ones that are trickier to establish definitively. As the emergency response was ramping up, for example, the license’s inclusion of private companies probably helped to mitigate bank “de-risking” and other problems of overcompliance that have made NGOs’ work more difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. The license may also have encouraged bilateral contributions of aid from regional countries that would otherwise have been worried about sanctions exposure and hesitant to become involved so directly and generously.
The Administration’s Failure to Make the Case
The Biden administration has not done a good job highlighting the positive effects of the February 9 general license. This is not a surprise; the administration has often struggled to communicate the responsible things it has done to reduce collateral damage of U.S. sanctions.
After the license was issued, for example, State Department spokesperson Price downplayed its real effect. He and other U.S. government representatives have stressed that no sanctions had been lifted and said the license just aimed to dispel confusion about implications of sanctions for aid. “The U.S. is amplifying and formally spelling out in writing what has always been true,” Price insisted. A Congressional staffer related to me, meanwhile, that a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) official sent to brief Congress on the earthquake response came under attack from another Congressional staffer over the general license. The USAID briefer defended himself by claiming the license didn’t really change anything; sanctions were never a problem, he said, and the license was just a messaging exercise.
Administration officials seem reluctant to make the case for this license, maybe because it would run counter to the mood on Capitol Hill, or maybe because it would mean acknowledging the adverse effects of sanctions a little too fully.
Yet the real case for this general license is that in the aftermath of the earthquake, time was of the essence. The aid response couldn’t afford a sanctions compliance bottleneck for urgent relief, or have the chilling effect of sanctions deter some contributions entirely.
By announcing this license so shortly after the earthquake, moreover, the Biden administration helped convey the priority of earthquake relief to other donors and mobilize them to contribute. The United Kingdom and the European Union followed the United States’ lead by temporarily relaxing their own sanctions regimes. Many more countries have since joined in the earthquake response in ways they may not have without early U.S. leadership.
And now that the disaster response is shifting from its initial emergency phase to focus on longer-term recovery and rehabilitation, we don’t want sanctions to somehow frustrate relief efforts. Preventing Syrians from repairing their earthquake-damaged homes because it might be considered “reconstruction,” for example, would just be pointlessly cruel.
Temporary sanctions relief was never going to fix everything, as Syrians and outsiders attempted to mount an emergency response in a country already ruined by more than a decade of war. The effect of these licenses was necessarily going to be on the margins. They made some difference, though, and they were worth issuing.
This general license has since come under attack from Syria hawks on Capitol Hill, in addition to like-minded Washington think tankers.
“The Biden administration’s decision to authorize direct transactions with the Assad regime in the name of humanitarian relief is a slap in the face to the Syrian people,” said Senator James Risch and Representative Michael McCaul. Senior Republican lawmakers, including Risch, McCaul, and Representative Joe Wilson have argued that the license was unnecessary, given existing humanitarian exemptions. They have claimed, moreover, that the license will open the way for the Syrian government to divert aid and for regional normalization with Damascus. Many of these members of Congress were already disgruntled with the Biden administration’s Syria policy and the administration’s failure to levy more sanctions on Syria.
We know that sanctions impact humanitarian aid, though, even with humanitarian exemptions in place. And we know this license cleared the way for at least some assistance to Syrians in need. Aid diversion by Syrian authorities, meanwhile, is a real concern (albeit one that is sometimes overstated, for political ends). But the diversion of some in-kind assistance is not going to substantially enrich the Syrian government, and anyway, some incidental benefit to bad actors is inevitable in a context like Syria. The challenge is not to eliminate aid diversion entirely, which is probably impossible, but rather to keep it at levels that are tolerable relative to the urgency of humanitarian action and the benefit to vulnerable Syrians. In an emergency like February’s earthquake, that urgency becomes even more acute—the correct decision then was to err on the side of more aid, faster.
Recent moves by Arab countries to reengage Damascus and normalize diplomatic relations, meanwhile, seem like a separate issue. It seems dubious that this Treasury license figured centrally in these countries’ decisions to call Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to voice condolences after the earthquake or dispatch their foreign ministers to Damascus. It seems more likely that the earthquake was a clarifying moment for the United States’ regional Arab partners, who decided that their decade-long policy of isolating Damascus was “not workable”—enough is enough, basically.
Treasury’s general license may have authorized some of these Arab countries’ specific contributions to earthquake relief—Emirati donations of search-and-rescue equipment to civil defense teams, for example, or shipments of Egyptian aid to Lattakia’s governorate relief committee. But that relief, which is welcome, does not somehow translate to political normalization with Damascus, which the Biden administration has in any case opposed.
Meanwhile, the policy alternatives that the license’s critics have proposed are obviously unserious. Several think-tankers have suggested, for example, that instead of this general license, Washington could create “a ‘white channel’ for humanitarian and incident-specific aid into Syria, similar to the approach taken with Iran in October 2020.” Yet the Trump administration’s proposed mechanism for humanitarian trade with Iran (announced in October 2019, not 2020) was meant to facilitate commercial trade in agricultural commodities, food, and medical supplies—not urgent relief. It took months for Switzerland to establish a trade channel using the Trump administration’s proposed mechanism; then that channel did not work. This is not a viable model for an emergency response.
This idea and others like it are non sequiturs—either poorly researched rhetorical deflections, or bad-faith distractions.
A Fight Worth Having
The fight over this general license is not over. These same members of Congress are now pushing the Biden administration to substantially curtail this license, just as Syrians and humanitarians try to scale up post-earthquake recovery efforts.
On February 27, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly for a resolution that was framed as an expression of solidarity with earthquake victims in Turkey and Syria but seems, in reality, to have been a reaffirmation of Syria sanctions. Joe Wilson, the bill’s lead sponsor, said on the House floor that he was “deeply saddened” that the Biden administration had “weakened” sanctions with the license, which “will do nothing to help the earthquake relief and will only endanger Syrian civilians by enriching the regime.” In a statement on the passage of Wilson’s bill, Michael McCaul insisted that “the U.S. must narrow the sanctions exemptions for earthquake relief to apply only to lifesaving humanitarian aid.”
The Biden administration deserves credit for putting human considerations first, for the sake of Syrian people.
Inside Syria, humanitarian needs have only grown since the earthquake. Even before February, conditions were dire. More than half of Syrians nationwide were “food insecure” and struggling to eat, mainly because they’ve become too poor to feed themselves. Syria just suffered an outbreak of cholera, due in large part to the breakdown of the country’s water and power systems. Now the earthquake seems likely to drive up food prices, worsening hunger; and there are already reports of new cholera deaths in earthquake-affected areas.
Now is not the time to throttle humanitarian aid. What the United States really ought to be doing is giving more, and actually extending this Treasury license beyond its 180-day expiration to better enable others to contribute to earthquake relief and recovery.The Biden administration also needs to mitigate sanctions-related problems specific to the opposition-held northwest, where humanitarians say sanctions on Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the designated terrorist organization that controls much of that area, are complicating relief efforts.
U.S. sanctions on Syria have been failing to meet their stated policy aims and hurting ordinary Syrians for years. When this earthquake hit, though, the Biden administration put human considerations first and relaxed sanctions, for the sake of Syrian people. Those same human considerations still ought to take priority a month after the earthquake, and beyond. The Biden administration should defend the responsible way they handled sanctions in the earthquake’s aftermath, and they ought to look for what more can be done for Syrians who, even before this latest disaster, were living through a cataclysm.
Going forward, the administration faces dual challenges: first, continuing to effectively respond to this earthquake, and to Syria’s compound humanitarian crisis, generally; and second, fending off Washington hawks intent on preventing any relaxation of sanctions pressure on Syria, whatever the cost to actual Syrians. Along the way, administration officials have to actually explain and advocate for the reasonable things they’ve done on sanctions and aid, so that would-be allies in Congress and the Washington policy community understand why these decisions made sense and can support them when they come under attack.
This is a political fight worth having. Last month’s earthquake relief license and steps like it are the humane response to something like this disaster. They’re exactly what the United States ought to be doing—and they merit a full-throated defense.
Header image: A Syrian child walks through a destroyed house following the earthquake, in the city of Armanaz, on February 24, 2023 north of Idlib, Syria. Source: Abdulmonam Eassa/Getty Images.