February 14, 2023 | Policy Brief

Biden’s Earthquake Relief Policy Opens Door Wide to Syria Sanctions Evasion

February 14, 2023 | Policy Brief

Biden’s Earthquake Relief Policy Opens Door Wide to Syria Sanctions Evasion

The Treasury Department issued a new general license on Thursday evening that authorizes broad new categories of individuals and organizations that can send aid to Syria, provided its purpose is earthquake relief. U.S. law mandates that all sanctions include an exception for humanitarian aid, yet until now, federal regulations sought to prevent abuse by requiring that a United Nations (UN) agency or non-governmental organization deliver the aid.

After the earthquake, the regime of Bashar al-Assad quickly began pressing the United States and Europe to lift sanctions on Damascus, claiming “if they lift sanctions, the Syrian people will be able to take care of their country.” Nevertheless, the regime refused to lift its own restrictions on the delivery of aid to northwest Syria, the area hit hardest by the earthquake but still controlled by Turkish-backed Islamist rebels.

Pressed to explain why the administration would not lift sanctions, State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters, “This is a regime … that has never shown any inclination to put the welfare, the well-being, the interests of its people first.” Rather, the administration would continue working with “humanitarian partners on the ground who can provide the type of assistance [needed] in the aftermath of these tragic earthquakes.”

Treasury’s issuance of General License 23 amounts to a reversal of this policy without explanation. Just hours before Treasury issued the license, Price reiterated, “There are many hurdles to overcome when providing humanitarian assistance in Syria and especially after devastating earthquakes this week, but our Syrian sanctions policy is not among them.”

A previous set of general licenses that Treasury issued last December had already addressed concerns about sanctions interfering with humanitarian aid. Moreover, the announcement of General License 23 did not identify any specific sanctions-related obstacles to post-quake relief.

The Code of Federal Regulations already includes a long-standing license that authorizes “all transactions and activities otherwise prohibited by this part that are for the conduct of the official business of the United Nations.” A separate license — which Congress codified in law in 2019 — authorizes nongovernmental organizations to engage in activities and transactions “to support humanitarian projects to meet basic human needs in Syria” as well as related purposes.

General License 23 widens this aperture by allowing, for a period of six months, “all transactions related to earthquake relief efforts in Syria that would otherwise be prohibited by the Syrian Sanctions Regulations.” There is no restriction on who initiates these transactions, and the transactions may involve the government of Syria. Thus, individuals and entities outside Syria could send money or goods to a government fund whose nominal purpose is earthquake relief. Alternatively, money could flow to the regime’s existing charity fronts, such as the Syria Trust for Development that is under the control of Asma al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s wife. Furthermore, the license provides no definition of what counts as “related to earthquake relief,” further widening the field of permitted activity.

The risk of aid diversion is not theoretical. The regime has learned to manipulate UN aid agencies, lining its pockets with the proceeds while denying aid to populations suspected of disloyalty. For example, by forcing the UN to accept distorted exchange rates, the regime diverted more than $100 million in less than two years.

These concerns are even more acute because the Biden administration has made only token efforts to enforce human rights sanctions on Syria and has even bent the law in Assad’s favor. There is little reason to expect to expect rigorous monitoring of the new license’s impact.

The people of Syria deserve foreign support that actually reaches them, not gestures Assad can easily exploit. The administration could increase funding for independent rescue organizations, like the White Helmets, or establish a “white channel” to direct relief through vetted parties, as it did with Iran. The need is urgent.

David Adesnik is research director and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from David and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow David on Twitter @adesnik. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


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