US allows NGOs to engage with Syrian regime under new sanction exemptions
The US Treasury announced on Wednesday that it was expanding sanction exemptions for NGOs operating in Syria, allowing them to engage with the Syrian regime in previously banned activities .
The expansion gives NGOs the ability to invest in Syria, purchase Syrian petroleum, and engage with the regime in certain projects. These activities are permitted only if projects are humanitarian in nature, support education or contribute to cultural preservation.
Previously, NGOs were limited in how they could engage with the Syrian regime due primarily to US sanctions, though humanitarian waivers existed upon application.
The US has a multi-layered system of sanctions on Syria, starting with sanctions enforced on Syria in 1979 for being a “State Sponsor of Terror”. Since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in 2011, multiple rounds of sanctions have been placed on Syria by the US and the EU, both on Syrian individuals such as intelligence chief Ali Mamlouk, and Syrian governmental organisations. These sanctions were put in place in response to the regime's mass-killing of its own people.
The US Congress passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act in December 2019, which was named after the pseudonym of the former Syrian military intelligence officer who had leaked thousands of photos depicting torture in regime prisons.
The Caesar Act forbade all “significant” transactions with the Syrian regime and, for the first time, threatened sanctions against any non-US national who conducted such transactions. The law pairs lifting of sanctions with accountability measures against war criminals in Syria, and with political reforms such as freeing prisoners.
While some Syrian opposition activists celebrated the law’s passage as a step towards justice in Syria, others complained that the sanctions would inevitably harm civilians.
Critics warned that the wide reach of the sanctions could produce a chilling effect on business and NGOs working in industries unaffected by the law, such as importing food and medicine. While the act provides explicit humanitarian exemptions, the fear of being sanctioned could prevent organisations from even engaging with Syria in the first place.
The US Treasury’s 2021 Sanctions Review said that sanctions should be better tailored to “mitigate unintended economic and political impacts on [...] non-targeted populations abroad”. It also recommended that “Treasury should expand sanctions exceptions to support the flow of legitimate humanitarian goods and assistance.”
Syria has been embroiled in an unprecedented economic crisis since 2019, with the currency losing much of its value and basic goods such as electricity and food becoming unaffordable. According to a briefing delivered to the UN Security Council in October, over 90 percent of the Syrian population lives below the poverty line.
The Biden administration has softened its approach to Syria sanctions, applying far fewer sanctions than the Trump administration and lifting some sanctions on Syrian businesses linked with regime oligarchs. The current administration also said that it would not sanction the coming Egypt-Jordan-Syria-Lebanon deal meant to supply Beirut with natural gas and electricity.