The Dilemmas in the Debate on Syria Sanctions


The Dilemmas in the Debate on Syria Sanctions

By Abdulla Ibrahim Erfan, Senior Advisor, Diplomatic Dialogue

After 10 years of war in Syria, sanctions have yet to achieve their purpose: a change in the behaviour of the Syrian establishment. Syria is no longer bleeding out of control, but still has many open, sensitive wounds which have raised difficult moral and practical challenges for the countries issuing sanctions. Despite the reduction in levels of violence since 2019, the causes of the Syrian crisis remain unchanged: suppression and lack of representation of the Syrian people in government, corruption by the elites, and a dysfunctional government.[i] More than nine countries and entities have imposed complex and cross-cutting sanctions on Syria since 2011 with the aim of denying the Syrian government the ability to use force against its own people and to incentivize political changes that could address the causes of the conflict.[ii] Neither objective has been achieved, and the intended target of the sanctions—the Syrian establishment— has suffered less than ordinary Syrians.

After ten years of a bloody conflict, the economic situation has deteriorated, though military operations and levels of violence have also decreased. Experts generally agree sanctions are ineffective without military action, which is unlikely from all parties now.[iii] Some experts believe sanctions are the cause for the current economic deterioration. While Syrians suffer, some believe that the ongoing sanctions are causing more suffering than the Syrian government’s suppression. However, this is debated because it is hard to separate the contribution of sanctions from other factors like general war impact and mismanagement of the economy – in addition to the Lebanese economic crisis.

Since the impact of sanctions on the Syrian economy is unclear, deciding whether to lift them is complicated. Currently, there is a reluctance to lift sanctions as the result would likely benefit the Syrian establishment and may or may not improve the livelihoods of ordinary Syrians. Lifting sanctions therefore introduces a moral conflict in appearing to reward bad behaviour, and a practical dilemma due to the unclear outcome doing so would have. However, some experts dismiss these concerns. In their view, Syria was food and medicine self-sufficient before 2011, despite corruption and mismanagement. Therefore, while lifting sanctions will not transform Syria into a modern economy, it will at least allow for normal levels of sustenance to be rebuilt.[iv] Keeping sanctions in place can hinder rebuilding the middle class and increase poverty, while decreasing the chance of a long-term peaceful settlement.[v]

The current dire economic and humanitarian situation in Syria risks further institutional decay, radicalization, and a destabilizing spill over effect on the neighbouring countries and Europe.[vi] Moreover, the weaker Syria is, the more dependent on Iran it will become, thus perpetuating the security dilemma nationally and regionally, prolonging instability. While all may agree that an end to bloodshed in Syria is desirable, determining the role of sanctions remains a debate. The web of sanctions on Syria is complicated, but the US sanctions are the most comprehensive with their secondary effects,[vii] thus a unilateral lifting by one of the other the countries issuing sanctions is unlikely to be effective. This means the players negotiating sanctions are primarily the US and Europe on behalf of the countries issuing sanctions, and Russia on behalf of the Syrian government and Iran. Solutions to redesign the current sanctions to facilitate political progress on a settlement to the conflict are plenty, but a bargain needs the willingness of both sides.[viii] This is complicated because the Syrian establishment is increasingly emboldened, and yet maintains existential insecurities, including a deep distrust of the intentions of the countries issuing sanctions. Also, Russia is losing its leverage given the dissipation of threats, and their lack of financial power to support reconstruction.

One possible middle ground could be a “more for more” formula, where the countries issuing sanctions offer incentives and the Syrian government offers reforms.[ix] Despite being the most stringent US sanction on Syria, the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act gives the US President a degree of flexibility in applying sanctions, such as in response to positive changes in behaviour by the Syrian government.[x] In addition, both the US and European sanction regimes include a humanitarian exemption mechanism that could be expanded upon to allow for more humanitarian support to Syria.[xi] Additionally, experts suggest that some sectoral sanctions could be lifted to help improve food security and create jobs in specific sectors.[xii] Together, these options offer a set of incentives for reform by the Syrian government. The Syrian presidential elections in June 2021 could be a chance to show some progress in the bargaining process, given that more military campaigns are unlikely to make dramatic changes to the current dynamics.

The way forward regarding sanctions on Syria remains unclear. However, three questions could help navigate difficult choices: 1) How can the countries issuing sanctions balance alleviating the immediate pain of ordinary Syrians while addressing the root causes of the problems? 2) How could a bargaining framework based on sanctions relief work without cooperation between the Syrian government/Russia and the countries issuing sanctions? 3) What would be the options for Syria if the focus was on achieving a structural transformation of the conflict over ten years instead of the current focus on short-term changes? Addressing these questions may pave the road for sanction reform, and thus may contribute to a proper healing of Syria’s open wounds. A rushed lifting of sanctions could aggravate the wounds and increase the chance they will bleed again in the future. However, leaving the wounds to fester will make them more susceptible to infection and negative violent repercussions.


The paper has originally been published on the website of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies and it does not represent the views of the author’s affiliation.



[i] Levels of violence in Syria have decreased significantly since 2019 compared to the years before, see SNHR data for levels of violence in 2020.

[ii] These countries and entities are the US, the EU, the Arab League, the UK, Japan, Canada, Switzerland, Turkey, and Norway.

[iii] See Jim Dobbins 4 December 2019, “Economic sanctions and carpet bombing are similarly ruinous,” The Hill.

[iv] See Samir Aita “The Unintended Consequences of U.S. and European Unilateral Measures on Syria’s Economy and its Small and Medium Enterprises,” Carter Center, January 2021; Zaki Mehchy and Rim Turkmani, January 2021, “Understanding the Impact of Sanctions on the Political Dynamics in Syria,” Conflict Research Program, London School of Economics (LSE).

[v] See Nikolay Sukhov, January 2020, “Russian Views on the Constitutional Committee and the Political Process in Syria,” Discussion Paper 4, Syria Transition Challenges Project, Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP).

[vi] See “A Path to Conflict Transformation in Syria: A Framework for a Phased Approach,” Carter Center, January 2021.

[vii] Secondary effect refers to the punishment of any non-US citizen or countries working with the Syrian government.

[viii] See Carter Center, January 2021.

[ix] See Muriel Asseburg, April 2020 “The EU Needs a New Syria Strategy,” IPS.

[x] See “U.S. and European Sanctions on Syria,” Carter Center, September 2020.

[xi] See “Navigating Humanitarian Exceptions to Sanctions Against Syria Challenges and Recommendations,” Carter Center report, October 2020; Joseph Daher, “Invisible Sanctions: How Over-compliance Limits Humanitarian Work on Syria Challenges of Fund Transfer for Non-Profit Organizations Working on Syria,” IMPACT, 2020.

[xii] See Muriel Asseburg 2020; Samir Aita 2021; and Zaki Mehchy and Rim Turkmani, January 2021.

Abdulla M. Erfan is a Senior Advisor to the Diplomatic Dialogue Department at the GCSP and the lead researcher in the Syrian Transition Challenges Project.  Abdulla has more than 10 years of experience in multilateral dialogues and research projects management. Abdulla is a PhD candidate at the Graduate Institute in Geneva where he researches militia formation in the Syrian civil war. Abdulla’s research focus on militias behavior, new models of peace making, post war institutional reforms, economic sanctions, political economy of transitions, and international powers policies in the Middle East. Abdulla advised the World Bank Institute and holds an MA from the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies of the University of Notre Dame.