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Crafting Effective Sanctions Relief for Northern Syria

The 180-day exemption allowing international aid to Syria in the aftermath of the February earthquake that killed at least 7000 Syrians provoked a flurry of debate. Some foreign-based opposition figures and analysts argued that Bashar al-Assad’s Damascus government could use the crisis to further its attempts at normalization with the international community. Others responded that the existing sanctions regime, accused by a United Nations rapporteur among other observers of impoverishing ordinary Syrians while leaving Assad and his coterie untouched, was overdue for a reassessment.

For the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), news of sanctions relief brought little relief worth the name. In May 2022, the United States had announced a separate set of sanctions exemptions, nominally intended to allow foreign investment and support in certain sectors across both North and East Syria (NES) itself and in some Turkish-occupied regions. But AANES officials, humanitarian personnel, and economic analysts all say the past year has brought no discernible change or additional international investment to the isolated, war-torn region.

On the one hand, the failure to bring in additional investment throughout the past twelve months demonstrates that there can be no sanctions reform for the most impoverished and difficult-to-access regions outside Syrian government control without a broader reform of pan-Syrian policy. On the other, there is untapped potential for the AANES to play an active role in facilitating a more constructive and dynamic approach to humanitarian intervention, investment, and aid delivery throughout Syria’s war-torn north—and beyond.

Compound obstruction of aid and investment

The contiguous regions under AANES governance were spared the worst impacts of the earthquake. But even following the dual sanctions exemptions, fresh challenges facing humanitarian relief efforts in NES once again spotlighted the multiple obstacles to delivering aid and investment into the region. Hasan Nabo, a doctor with the Kurdish Red Crescent in the AANES’ western exclave of Shehba, describes the situation there following the quake: “Following the sanctions exemptions, some aid got through to the [Assad] regime, but none to Shehba. When supplies are sent from abroad, the regime seizes half for themselves.”

Here, earthquake aid convoys sent by the AANES and from Sulaymaniyah in neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan spent ten days idling at Syrian Government checkpoints, Nabo says. Meanwhile, aid deliveries into neighbouring Turkish-occupied regions were systematically plundered by Turkish-backed militias, according to Ibrahim Sheikho of the Human Rights Organisation – Afrin.

On the AANES’ eastern border, meanwhile, the situation is equally gridlocked. The sole border crossing currently linking North and East Syria to Iraqi Kurdistan and the outside world, and therefore with territory exempt from the Caesar sanctions, was recently closed due to the latest of many disputes between the AANES and Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).  At the time of writing, hundreds of people had been queuing since 2AM to exit the region before the Semalka/Fish Khabour crossing ceased operating for an unrestricted period of time. These included AANES residents and foreign NGO staff rushing to get across the border before it closed. “Importing goods was already difficult. Now, one of the crucial lifelines is cut,” one foreigner waiting to exit the region said.

These three neighboring authorities – the KRG, the Syrian government, and Turkey – all obstruct access to humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, the sole official U.N. aid crossing between AANES and the outside world—the Yaroubiah/Tel Kocher crossing with federal Iraq—remains shuttered by UN Security Council decree. Given these compound obstacles, creating an environment favourable to the delivery of aid and investment to a region described as the most impoverished in Syria will require more than de jure sanctions exemptions with no tangible impact on the ground.

No new foreign investment projects have begun in the region as a result of the May 2022 sanctions exemptions, three AANES officials tell the Kurdish Peace Institute. Legislation the AANES planned in the aftermath of the 2022 exemptions to facilitate foreign investment is yet to pass into law.

Analyst Calvin Wilder of the New Lines Institute corroborates this assessment: “My own close tracking of Arabic and English language reporting has not yielded any data on new investment projects from external sources. We also aren’t seeing the effects of any new investment projects.”

The AANES has recently established some medium-scale employment projects, with new factories producing secondary products like vegetable oil and bottled water. Hediya, co-chair of the AANES’ Economy Bureau in the Jazira region, says: “These are positive endeavours, but we have received no foreign economic assistance to open major projects.”

The Golden Rose factory, for example, which now produces 300 tonnes of vegetable oil per day, was opened with investment from a local firm, Hassan Investment. These efforts alone are insufficient to provide widespread employment opportunities in a region where 70% of people are estimated as being in ‘extreme need’ of humanitarian relief.

Pan-Syrian sanctions reform

Several factors have contributed to NES’ continued de facto inclusion in the sanctions regime. Its isolation due to politically-motivated border closures and correlated lack of autarky leave the region’s economy bound up with that of the Syrian government. The AANES is forced to conduct most of its black-market oil trade—which provides the majority of its revenue—with Damascus due to ongoing, Syria-wide sanctions on that crucial sector.  As such, Wilder says, “it’s almost impossible to do business in NES that does not involve any interaction with regime-held territory. Even if the north-east is exempted on paper, most banks and large multinational corporations are not going to take the risk of violating sanctions by doing business there.”

The lack of subsequent investment suggests that the May 2022 exemptions were largely cosmetic—and that any serious efforts to promote international investment in the region will require a broader reassessment of the sanctions program as a whole. Research shows that, throughout Syria, it is small and mid-size businesses which suffer most under E.U. and U.S. sanctions—while big businessmen close to Assad are easily able to weather or evade the sanctions regime, even boasting of being under foreign sanctions as a badge of their intimate ties to the Syrian government.

A U.N.-appointed rapporteur was unequivocal in her recent condemnation of the negative impact of unilateral sanctions on almost every aspect of life Syrian civilians, from access to vital medicines through to chronic food poverty and a total inability to rebuild the country: “Unilateral sanctions on key economic sectors, including oil, gas, electricity, trade, construction and engineering have quashed national income, and undermine efforts towards economic recovery and reconstruction,” she said. “I am struck by the pervasiveness of the human rights and humanitarian impact of the unilateral coercive measures imposed on Syria, and the total economic and financial isolation of a country whose people are struggling to rebuild a life with dignity.”

The 2020 Caesar sanctions, and pre-existing sector-wide sanctions on Syria, are not the primary reason for economic and humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. As the aftermath of the earthquake reveals, the destruction of infrastructure, aid diversion, corruption and extensive reliance on Lebanon’s ailing finance sector have all contributed to a situation where millions of people within and outside areas of government control live in extreme poverty and precariousness—for example, damage following the quake has left 6.5 million people at fresh risk of waterborne diseases.

That said, sanctions are an aspect of this tragedy which U.S. and E.U. lawmakers have the power to rapidly reform. The U.S. is currently strengthening the Caesar Act with a bill opposing normalisation with Assad and his economic relations with the Gulf, and requiring probes into sanctions evasion and the misappropriation of aid in Syria. These investigations should provide a platform for a reassessment of the sanctions regime in toto.

Syria analyst Karam Shaar has made a compelling case for scrapping ‘sector-wide’ sanctions  against Syria, replacing a program of generalized sanctions with a more effective regime of targeted sanctions against front companies and relevant individuals backed by secondary sanctions and based on information from Syrian interlocutors. Noting that the Caesar Act has only been used against four Syrians to date, one of whom is dead, Shaar writes: “Failing to use the act’s secondary sanctions is indefensible, especially because its passage has contributed to economic and humanitarian collapse in the country. Syrians simply cannot afford the cost of ineffective sanctions.”

Though the AANES remains politically committed to replacing centralized Ba’ath government with a federal, decentralized model, it nonetheless welcomed Syria’s recent reinstatement into the Arab League, pragmatically accepting the necessity of continued (economic) relations with Damascus. But while Assad’s regional normalization may mark the tentative return of more under-the radar regional investment to Syria, “there’s no reason to think that the Arab League reinstatement changes the calculus in Washington,” Wilder adds.” Due to NES’ unavoidable interdependence with the economy of government-controlled Syria, global sanctions reforms which enable the Syrian economy to make a recovery, while keeping up the pressure on Assad and his affiliates, will be a necessary corollary to economic recovery in NES.

While necessary, these steps alone will not be sufficient. Following May 2022, if anything, the economic situation in NES has deteriorated further. As NES-based economist Cheleng Omar notes, a wave of Turkish threats against NES began in the immediate aftermath of the May 2022 exemptions, later to be followed by airstrikes against gas and petrol infrastructure, among other critical infrastructure – perhaps partially motivated by the sanctions reforms and their apparent message of support for NES’ economic autonomy. By August 2022, the AANES’ Crisis Cell had been forced to redirect its own investments from sectors like local administration, municipalities and the environment to focus on the supply of food, medicine and basic essentials, as well as housing IDPs displaced by an expected Turkish military operation.

Following incumbent president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s retention of power in the Turkish elections, a fresh military operation against the Kurdish-led autonomous regions will remain an ever-present possibility, further diminishing the appetite of risk-averse foreign investors for entering the region. Deadly Turkish drone strikes and shelling, often targeting civilian administrators and infrastructure, remain a daily reality in NES. In such adverse circumstances, it is little wonder the only ‘foreign investment’ recently mentioned in association with the country is the abortive, adventurist effort to exploit the region’s oil resources launched by the shadowy Delta Crescent in the dying years of the Trump administration.

Center the AANES in Syria Policy

Critics of unwieldy, ineffective sanctions programs sometimes represent them as ‘virtue signalling’, intended to communicate a message of condemnation without actually constituting effective opposition to a given government or individual. In this instance, the opposite is equally true. The May 2022 sanctions exemptions effectively exposed NES by signalling an American commitment to the region’s autonomy without providing concrete support to that end. Along with a broader rehaul of the sanctions program, there are some concrete steps which the United States could take to provide specific support to its key partner in the region, the AANES and its Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who remain officially allied with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS.

1) Impose unilateral pressure to re-open crossings into North and East Syria

It is well within Washington’s diplomatic reach to unilaterally re-open not only the Semalka crossing between NES and KRG, but also the shuttered U.N. aid crossing from federal Iraq into NES. “The Tel Kocher and Semalka crossings must be left out of political horse-trading, and the [US-led International Coalition to Defeat ISIS] could play a role in this. Not only a military role, but also an economic one,” says Omar, the economist, pointing to the Coaliton’s mandate to restore stability in regions affected by ISIS.

Following the earthquake, and a delay of some days, aid gates were ultimately opened into north-western Syria. These delays came as the U.N. waited for the Damascus regime’s blessing—despite the fact the aid was travelling to regions that had been outside of Assad’s control for a decade. Pre-eminent legal jurists have long argued cross-border aid to Syria is entirely permissible under international law, regardless of Russia’s veto in the moribund UN Security Council. Former US Special Envoy  for Syria Joel Rayburn is among those who has criticized the U.S. for kowtowing to this veto: “The U.S. should also make it impossible for Russia to gain concessions by continually threatening to veto UN cross-border aid into Syria. It’s long past time for the U.S. and other allies to develop a viable alternative to UN aid.”

If the U.S. pressures its partners in both the KRG and Baghdad, while unilaterally providing assistance where necessary, it will be able to re-open NES’ external borders to both aid and trade – and keep them open. Such a measure would serve as a more concrete statement of support for the region’s future as an autonomous polity. It will also serve as a more concrete demonstration of opposition to the Assad government’s normalization with the Gulf, providing routes for subsequently attracting regional investment into NES—rather than Assad’s pocket.

2) Unilaterally route aid through North and East Syria

In addition to facilitating trade and investment, U.S.-brokered and guaranteed access to the outside world would facilitate the unilateral transfer of aid via Washington’s trusted partners in NES. As we saw during the coronavirus crisis, and again following the earthquake, both the Assad government and its proxies, and Turkish proxies in northern Syria, systematically misappropriate aid intended for civilians—particularly those living in regions outside of government control. Routing emergency aid to the north-east and north-west via the AANES would force greater engagement and cooperation at Syria’s internal borders. For example, WHO aid should travel from the NES’ de facto capital Qamishlo to Damascus, not the other way around, with the U.S. providing infrastructure to facilitate this as appropriate.

Moreover, Hediya, the Economy Bureau official, points out that NES is Syria’s most productive agricultural region. Syria was once self-sufficient in food production, but now suffers the sixth-highest number of food-insecure people in the world, at some 12.1 million. The AANES and Syrian Government both suffer shortcomings, worsened by the global wheat drought occasioned by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and regularly compete to purchase farmers’ crops. The U.S. should equip NES’ agricultural sector to produce a net surplus and the AANES to purchase wheat at attractive rates, allowing NES to proactively offer food aid in its own right to other regions of Syria, thereby cementing the region’s status as an essential part of Syria’s future.

3) Extend the sanctions waiver to cover oil production 

NES produces the bulk of Syria’s oil, and relies on oil revenues for the bulk of its revenue. Sanctions waivers which exclude this key component of its industry are unlikely to have much tangible impact, due to the absence of serious industry in an economy otherwise largely dependent on small-scale agriculture and remittances. The U.S. reacts angrily to the AANES’ continued black-market sales to Damascus but has failed to take the step of allowing NES to connect with foreign markets via the KRG—leaving the AANES with little choice but to pursue this policy. If the US is serious about sanctions reform as more than mere virtue-signalling, it needs to rethink this exemption.

4) Seek an inclusive political settlement with long-lasting stability and security for North and East Syria

Ultimately, no matter what waivers are put in place, serious foreign investment in and engagement with NES will only arrive once the military and political situation stabilizes. At a recent panel event hosted by the Kurdish Peace Institute and the New Lines Institute, former commander of the US Army’s Central Command Joseph Votel issued an urgent call for a political settlement for the SDF and AANES, following up on promises made at the outset of their partnership with the U.S. Before there can be any thought of foreign investors moving into the region, the U.S. must take firm and direct action to prevent ongoing Turkish military aggression against its allies in the fight against ISIS, their civilian representatives, and humanitarian infrastructure. The US must recalibrate its relationship with Turkey, be assertive in preventing any new Turkish military incursion, and insist that the millions of civilians in the country’s north-east have the right to representation in official political negotiations over Syria’ future.

NES need not be treated as a protectorate, transient ally or humanitarian cause, solely worthy of U.S. protection due to the ongoing sacrifices made by the SDF in the fight against ISIS. Rather, the region can serve as a platform for building a more productive, dynamic and engaged approach to resolving the crisis in Syria. The other proposals outlined here can contribute to this end, not least by signalling Washington’s depth of commitment to NES as a key component of Syria’s future peace, prosperity and stability. “I never experienced a better relationship with any partner I ever worked with,” General Votel stated. “They were not only extraordinary fighters, but they did a lot to foster stability.” These trusted partners should be put at the heart of a revamped, reinvigorated U.S. policy which keeps Assad in the cross-hairs while alleviating the suffering of Syrian civilians in all regions of Syria.

(Photo: Abdulmonam Eassa/Getty Images)

About the Author

Matt Broomfield


Matt Broomfield is a freelance journalist focused on the Kurdish issue. He is the co-founder of the Rojava Information Centre, the top English-language news source in North and East Syria.

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