Crushing US sanctions devastate Syria’s people and post-war reconstruction

Leading Syria scholar Joshua Landis on how crippling US sanctions are devastating Syria’s people and hindering post-war reconstruction.

In a new article for Foreign Affairs, scholar Joshua Landis and former Obama administration official Steve Simon write that US sanctions on Syria “further immiserates the Syrian people, blocks reconstruction efforts, and strangles the economy that sustains a desperate population during Syria’s growing humanitarian and public health crises.” Landis, a leading expert on Syria, joins Pushback.

Guest: Joshua Landis, Sandra Mackey Professor of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Joshua Lands and Steven Simon in Foreign Affairs: “The Pointless Cruelty of Trump’s New Syria Sanctions” 


AARON MATÉ: Welcome to Pushback, I’m Aaron Maté.

In June, the US imposed its harshest sanctions on Syria to date, prompting the World Food Programme to warn of “mass starvation or another mass exodus.” The US sanctions law known as the Caesar Act openly states that its strategy is to prevent reconstruction in government-held areas where most Syrians live, in which the Syrian government now controls after defeating a decade-long, devastating proxy war waged by the US and its allies.

In a new article for Foreign Affairs, scholar Joshua Landis and former Obama administration official Steve Simon write that the current US sanctions policy, quote, “further immiserates the Syrian people, blocks reconstruction efforts, and strangles the economy that sustains a desperate population during Syria’s growing humanitarian and public health crises.”

Well, joining me is the co-author of the piece. Joshua Landis is the Sandra Mackey Professor of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Joshua Landis, welcome to Pushback.

JOSHUA LANDIS: It’s a pleasure being with you, Aaron.

AARON MATÉ: So, lay out for us what these Caesar Act sanctions do to Syria, and why you have written this article in opposition.

JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, the sanctions are…the stated reason for the sanctions is that they are to…they’re to force the Assad regime to accept UN resolutions, which call for free elections—free and fair elections—to end the sectarian form of government, and to start a political process that the Special Envoy to the United States, James Jeffrey, has said would lead to Assad leaving power. So, in a sense, this is regime change. He has said it’s not about regime change, and the Trump administration people say we don’t insist on regime change; we want a radical change of regime behavior. But we know that’s not going to happen. Assad has won the war, and these sanctions end up, you know, immiserating the Syrian people, is what it…you know, Assad is going to be able to eat three square meals a day, he can fly it in if he has to, he’s not going to be made miserable. There are a lot of Syrian opposition members that see this as a way to punish Assad. James Jeffrey has, in his downtime, has said this…his job is really about turning Syria into a quagmire for Russian and Iran.

James Jeffrey: This isn’t Afghanistan. This isn’t Vietnam. This isn’t, a quagmire. My job is to make it a quagmire for the Russians.

JOSHUA LANDIS: So, those are the three different agendas, really, to punish Assad, to try to carry out some kind of regime change, and perhaps ignite this UN sanct…you know, these UN resolutions that are supposed to bring about a political process, and then also turn Syria into a quagmire so it becomes a millstone around the necks of Russia and Iran.

And those, you know, those policies are not going…are not really going to be achieved. Russia has made Syria a key factor in its foreign policy. It’s not going to abandon Syria, and Syria doesn’t cost them that much. There’s not going to be a public uprising against Assad. Many people have said, oh, some Druze were demonstrating this and that, but Assad has put down the opposition and has won a civil…very bloody civil war. He’s not going to be overthrown by some demonstrations today, and he’s not going to be moved by Western sanctions.

So, this…the result of these policies is going to be to starve Syrians, increase instability in Syria, send Syrians [as] more refugees…waves of refugees out into the West, and probably to promote terrorism, because their people will be so poor and unhappy. So, it’s not good for American foreign policy, I think, in the long run. It’s not good for Syrians. It’s not good for humanitarian interests.

So, for all those reasons, I’ve written this article with Steve Simon to argue we shouldn’t be doing it. We should be pursuing a very different policy towards Syria.

AARON MATÉ: The UN coordinator for Syria has urged a lifting of sanctions that harm reconstruction.

Geir Pedersen (UN Special Envoy for Syria): Here, let me also re-echo the Secretary General’s appeal from earlier this year for the waiver of sanctions that can undermine the capacity of the country, to ensure access to food, essential health supplies, and COVID-19 medical support to respond to the pandemic.

AARON MATÉ: And the law itself, the Caesar Act itself, openly says that its strategy is to hurt reconstruction. Can you talk about how it goes about doing this, how it targets people who are trying to rebuild Syria, both inside Syria and anybody around the world who might want to help out in that effort?

JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, there’s two ways. One is through sanctions against people. So that’s the…all the leaders of the regime and major businessmen that do business in Syria. By imposing sanctions on them, personally, it becomes very difficult to do any business.

Let’s say you’re trying to…Syria…almost more than half of the electric generators in Syria were harmed or destroyed during the war. Syria has to rebuild and fix all of that electric generation. Today there’s…most people are getting an hour, two hours, three hours of electricity a day if they don’t have generators, so it’s terribly devastating to people, hospitals, businesses that want to try to get going again. It’s very damaging. And to produce electricity so people can heat their homes, air conditioning, go back to school is key to raising the standard of living of Syrians once again.

All that import-export is forbidden. Anybody who engages with it is forbidden. Today with the newest level of sanctions, anybody—let’s say a Lebanese person who wants to sell an electric generator or electric lines or anything to Syria is going to get sanctioned. That means their bank accounts will be stopped, they can’t use their SWIFT code. The SWIFT code is the key to banking sanctions. In order for you…it’s like your bank account when you have to put your routing number on a check when you want to get paid that tells you what bank your money goes to. The SWIFT code is the international routing number, and America can freeze anybody’s SWIFT code because most trade is done in dollars, and they can just freeze your SWIFT code so that no money can be transferred in and out of your accounts. And there’s an army of people sitting in Washington in the Treasury Department who are…whose single job is to find out who’s doing business with Syria and to freeze their accounts and to put sanctions on them. And so, it is very demo…you know, it just freezes their economy.

AARON MATÉ: The recent explosion in Beirut, there was a lot of aid to Syria going through that port. How does that impact the reconstruction efforts in Syria? And do these sanctions make that disaster…make the impact of that disaster in Beirut even worse?

JOSHUA LANDIS: They absolutely do. We saw that the ports in Syria have been designated by Washington as a terrorist organization. In other words, because the president and the government get money out of taxes, and anything that comes in and out of the port, that money is considered to be contributing to a terrorist organization and people who are sanctioned, like the Syrian government and the president of Syria and so forth.

And we saw that most recently when the United States tried to impound an Iranian ship, tried to get Britain to impound an Iranian ship as it was going by Spain to…because it was going to go to the port. And anything that went to the port of Syria was going to be contributing to terrorism by providing monies to the Syrian government. So, nobody can go in and out of those ports without risking being impounded or sanctioned by the United States. So, getting through other ports of neighbors, like Lebanese ports, was extremely important for Syrian efforts to dodge any kind of those sanctions. So, having the ports in your neighbor, especially one so important as Beirut port, blown up stops all kinds of commerce with Syria.

AARON MATÉ: Do you think there is an irony or a blatant hypocrisy— pardon my editorializing—in trying to target the Syrian government for supposedly supporting terrorist groups, when the US arm-equip program, Timber Sycamore, ended up arming groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS in Syria?

JOSHUA LANDIS: You know, of course it’s very…it’s very ironic. The United States, by supporting the uprising in Syria, by training and equipping something like 17 different militias in Syria, funneling tons of money into these militias which were really…they were being fed off of by Al-Qaeda and other Islamist organizations that were much stronger than they in Syria. They were allowed to survive and operate in Syria largely because the bigger Islamist organizations—radical jihadist organizations—saw them as a conduit for American money, aid, and weapons into Syria. Then they would be intimidated, these…these pro-American militias would be intimidated, and they would have to pay in taxes and protection money. Forty percent of the weapons they were getting from Washington went straight into these organizations who control the passages between Turkey and Syria. They could just tax them as they brought stuff across the border. So, in a sense, America could claim that they were not doing this. But I think everybody in the CIA and the Defense Department understood that the price of helping the opposition in Syria was to allow these very powerful Islamist jihadist organizations to funnel off a lot of the weapons and money.

So, yes, Washington was not only funding terrorism by supporting this opposition. Of course, they called the opposition the good people, Friends of Syria, supported it. They got a lot of international support to do it, and that’s, you know, I guess that’s a problem with an authoritarian regime, where a lot of people oppose it, is, you can say, well, the opposition is now the legitimate government. The way it happened in Libya, where, in fact, America got the UN to vote to make the opposition the legal government, and they could just switch sides. But doing that, of course, led to the terrible situation in Libya today, where Libyans are much worse off, where the country’s in chaos. And that’s what happened to Syria as well. This American…misguided American effort to…what America believed was to promote democracy, which did nothing of the sort…

AARON MATÉ: Well, they may…they may have told themselves that, but I think the real aim was to crush a secular independent state that was aligned with Iran, who…another independent state that the US wants to destroy because it gets in the way of US hegemony.

JOSHUA LANDIS: Yes, it certainly does. You know, an ally of Iran is an enemy of the United States. Syria had been in a coalition with Hezbollah and other non-state actors to try to get back the Golan Heights, which has been occupied by Israel since 1967. And in order to pressure Israel, had been supported by Iran, had supported Hezbollah and other Palestinian groups in the region in order to pressure Israel to try to get back Golan Heights. Of course, that backfired on Assad, and he’s being crushed today largely because of that stance.

AARON MATÉ: Let’s talk about other ways that the US is turning the screws, is pressuring the Syrian government. Just recently there was an incident in northeastern Syria, where there’s a US occupation force, where the US military killed a Syrian soldier and injured two other Syrian soldiers at a Syrian checkpoint. You write in your piece that the US has essentially greenlit Israeli strikes on Syrian territory, as well as Turkey’s expropriation of Syrian resources as well. Can you talk about this, the strategy in conjunction with the sanctions?

JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, it’s to weaken Syria and to try to gain as much leverage. And that is to cut off trade. So, for example, in [al]-Tanf, which is a small, little desert town that America has dozens of soldiers and a proxy militia [in] that…it’s right on the highway, the main highway between Damascus and Iraq, a major trading partner. And, so, America has cut off all traffic along that road. And that is primarily to choke the economy in Syria. The stated goal is to keep Iran from sending arms overland to support Assad. But, of course, Iran can do that over on different roads; it can do that in other ways. But it chokes the trade, and so that makes Syria poorer. So does keeping out these other areas, like the northeast. The Kurdish region is a gold mine. Well it’s…let’s not exaggerate, but it’s got most of Syria’s oil, it’s got the best agriculture, and it borders the Euphrates River, which is the major river for water and electric generation in Syria. So, by keeping that area outside of Syria’s control and protecting the oil, as America says, they’re impoverishing Syrians, which is the goal of this exercise.

AARON MATÉ: So, let me ask you about that recent agreement that was made between the Kurds in northern Syria and a US energy firm. Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State, recently confirmed it. Defenders of the Kurds said they have no choice, they had to make this deal. Critics say that they are taking part in the Balkanization and further impoverishment of Syria. Talk to us about what position the Kurds are in, and what is the impact of this agreement that they’ve made, essentially, with the US government?

JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, you know, there’s several ways of looking at this zone, this northeast zone American troops are protecting that is under the Syrian Democratic Forces. They were named that by a colonel. They’re not really democratic, but they’re…by most accounts it’s a much freer zone than the rest of Syria. Much freer than the Turkish-controlled areas where these Al-Qaeda offspring are ruling things. So, I don’t want to condemn it because I think that the administration that has grown up under this Kurdish umbrella group—there are Arabs in it as well—is laudable in many ways.

The problem is, is that first of all, it’s illegal. But the biggest problem is, it’s not going to survive. America is using it rather cynically in order to weaken Syria. Trump has already tried to pull out once. The United States will pull out eventually because what are we doing there? It’s just sucking our money. And the Kurds, who many people sympathize with—I sympathize with them—the Kurds would like their own nation-state. Probably, you know, 30 percent of Turkey, a big hunk of Iraq, Iran, Syria, to make a giant Kurdish nation, which is, I guess, the wish of many Kurds. The Kurds in northeastern Syria say they don’t want independence, or at least that’s their official stance, is that they’re looking for a broad autonomy. But most Kurds that I know would like to have their own nation-state and self-determination.

So, America is encouraging this nationalist independence movement of the Kurds for its own reasons, but it can’t turn it into a nation-state. First of all, it’s illegal. Nobody in the UN would vote for it. All of its neighbors, Turkey, Iraq, Syria are dead set against it. Russia and Iran are set against it. And it’s not survivable. There are probably around two million Kurds in Syria. They’re the poorest population in Syria. There is no airport. There are very…no universities. There’s no infrastructure for a nation-state. There’s no air force, most importantly.

So, as soon as America lifts its security umbrella, takes its troops out and stops policing the air with a no-fly zone, Turkey, Syria are going to compete over who’s going to get that territory. So…and America’s not going to stay there forever. It’s like Afghanistan or Vietnam, or one of these places where eventually America will be exhausted. The American people will say, what the hell are we doing there? And they’ll go home. And then this entire collaborative elite that America has established is gonna get wiped out, and it’s gonna be, you know, everybody’s gonna pull their hair and rent their chests but…and feel terrible about the situation, and people are going to say, you know, good humanitarians in America are going to say, oh, we shouldn’t stay there. We should do something. How can you be so evil? But America’s not going to sustain this. So, what they’re doing is they’re setting up these people, they’re using their aspirations for self-determination for short-term American political gain, and then they’re going to let them down with a giant thump. And I think it’s wiser and more honest and better policy to make it clear to the Kurds that that’s not going to happen, that America cannot help them towards an independent state in northeastern Syria, and that they should make a deal with the Syrian government, a deal which the Syrian government is interested in making and which has been hammered out previously between Kurds and Damascus. It won’t be a good deal for the Kurds. It won’t be the deal they want, an ideal deal, but it’ll be much better than being ruled by Turkey. And it’ll be better than the chaos that’s going to ensue as soon as America begins to withdraw.

AARON MATÉ: You write in your piece that the US has leverage with Assad because of the sanctions, that Assad would agree to concessions if the US was willing to negotiate. What do you think those concessions would be, and do you see, based on your reading of Washington, any appetite inside DC right now, not just in the Trump administration, but among Democrats as well to promote diplomacy with Syria and to be willing to drop these sanctions?

JOSHUA LANDIS: I don’t see much appetite, and I don’t see a lot of appetite in the possible Biden administration, either. [Anthony] Blinken, who is a top foreign policy advisor and will probably have an important position within the new administration, has come out and been fairly articulate about how the United States should support the opposition zones of Syria, keep Syria divided. It should gain…keep its leverage, be nicer to Kurds, and maintain sanctions on Assad.

So, I don’t think the US is going to, at least in the short term, is going to change its policy. It may begin to. There may be the voices for some kind of diplomatic discussion with Assad behind the scenes, secretly, just to figure out where he stands on certain issues. Might be broached, but I don’t think it’ll happen quickly. Because Syria is just so unimportant. And whatever capital Biden will want to spend, I think he’ll want to spend it elsewhere, either with Turkey or Iran, so forth, and not in Syria. So, I’m not very optimistic about that, the future of Syrian-US relations. And I think Assad is deeply distrustful of the United States right now. It would be very hard to build any confidence between him and Washington. Washington has been trying to move him out of power and has been helping opposition groups for over 10 years now, in a serious way, and sanctioning him, ratcheting up sanctions. So, I think he’s going to believe that whatever démarche is made towards him, it comes…is perhaps a poisoned chalice. So, I don’t know. It’s gonna be very difficult to break that ice. But I think it needs to be broken, because I think he’s gonna be there for a long time. I think he’s got strong support from Iran and Russia, and America’s got very little leverage.

AARON MATÉ: Your co-author on this piece is Steve Simon, who, like Tony Blinken, also comes from the Obama administration, so there is a split inside that camp, inside the Obama wing which Biden is a part of. Do you think that if Biden is elected that there might be some voices inside his circle who take a different position than his top advisor, Tony Blinken?

JOSHUA LANDIS: Yes, I do. I do. Because the policy is just stupid. It is a stupid policy and it’s connected to the Iran policy. It’s connected to Israel. It’s very hard to change because it is connected to Israel, and it’s very difficult to, you know, the price is high for any politician that displeases Israel, I guess, because the Syrians have very little voice. And the Syrian opposition has a voice in Washington, and they’re sympathetic.

AARON MATÉ: They lobbied for them.

JOSHUA LANDIS: Yes, they did lobby for them, and so…but I think there will be voices. Because this whole policy, which is built around extreme pressure to crack Iran and to try to get regime change in Iran is a policy which I think is not only wrong-headed but very damaging to America. Not only because America spends tons of political capital trying to police this policy, you know, get China and Russia and many of our friends to obey sanctions against Iran. And we see Europe’s in full revolt in the recent effort to get snapback sanctions on it. So, Europe is just thumbing their nose at the United States and digging their heels in.

So, we’ve lost lots of political, diplomatic capital trying to pursue this policy. But it’s also going to fail. And even if it were to win, even if we could crack Iran economically and impoverish Iran to such a point that there’s a widespread instability inside Iran, what would that get us? It’d probably get us a civil war like we’ve gotten in Libya or in Yemen and in Iraq and Syria, Afghanistan. Our policies to crush people economically and politically have reaped civil war in every one of those countries, because they’re divided countries. And when people get really angry and their interests are destroyed, they go after each other. And that’s…America shouldn’t be doing that.

AARON MATÉ: Your article, Joshua Landis, is vital, and everybody should read it. It’s called “The Pointless Cruelty of Trump’s New Syria Sanctions” at Foreign Affairs.

Josh Landis is non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and Sandra Mackey Professor of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Josh Landis, thanks very much.

JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, thank you, Aaron. And thank you for doing such good work in keeping us all on our toes and really smart criticism of our foreign policy.

AARON MATÉ: I appreciate that. Thank you.