Syrian bishop calls economic sanctions ‘crime against humanity’

Several Catholic leaders in Syria and the heads of major aid organizations have joined forces in condemning economic sanctions against the country, arguing that they have little political impact but make the people suffer.

ROME – Several Catholic leaders in Syria and the heads of major aid organizations have joined forces in condemning economic sanctions against the country, arguing that they make little political impact while making the people suffer.

Speaking to Crux Bishop Georges Abou Khazen, the Latin Apostolic Vicar of Aleppo, said that after 10 years of war, what the Syrian people are asking for “is to put an end to the war and the sanctions: sanctions that only affect poor people and which are a kind of crime against humanity.”

“When have sanctions ever achieved the purpose for which they were imposed?! Lifting the sanctions would not complicate the political situation, but it would have more toward reconciliation,” he said, noting that around 90 percent of the population is living under the poverty line, and 60 percent in absolute poverty, “so much so that they say we were better off under the bombardments during the war!”

“How much we would have liked to celebrate the end of this war, not the anniversary of this war, which has changed Syria and the region,” Khazen said, saying the “chaos” caused by the war has created the problem of poverty and has led to the vast immigration of swaths of the Syrian population.

In Aleppo, the fighting has stopped, but now thanks to economic sanctions intended to squeeze Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of office, there is a grave lack of basic necessities such as food, gasoline, diesel fuel, and medicine.

Electricity is on only for 2-3 hours a day, and inflation has soared, Khazen said, noting that before the war the one dollar was worth 50 Syrian lira, whereas today it is equivalent to around 1,500 Syrian lira.

Sanctions have little political impact, and “only help to worsen the humanitarian situation,” Khazen said, noting that he often sees people searching for food in garbage cans.

This, he said, “is why people don’t care much about the coronavirus, because if they don’t go out to work, they die of hunger.”

Without help from the Church and from the many benefactors who have sent aid and humanitarian relief, the people would not survive, he said, adding, “The people are very tired and have lost all hope and repeat: we were wrong to stay here!”

March 15 marked the 10th anniversary of the start of the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011 as a series of peaceful protests against Assad but quickly morphed into a complex and bloody conflict which has claimed the lives of close to 400,000 people and displaced millions.

According to Ryad Sargi, Director of Caritas Syria, who spoke during a March 23 webinar organized by Caritas International to mark the 10th anniversary of the Syrian conflict, updated UN figures estimate that so far, some 5.6 million people have fled Syria, a third of whom are under 11 years old.

An additional 6.7 million are internally displaced and some 2.4 million children lack access to education, while roughly 12.4 million people do not have adequate food or heating. Roughly 60 percent of children in Syria are in urgent need of education, food, and heating, and 13.4 million require immediate humanitarian assistance.

The average monthly salary of employees working in the public sector is just $15, and $50 in the private sector, Sargi said, noting that a food basket feeding a family of five for a month costs $136. On average, he said, a family of five needs to spend around $350 on basic expenses, making almost impossible for most to make ends meet.

In terms of infrastructure, Syria has lost 70 percent of its electric stations, 35 percent of schools have been destroyed, 70 percent of healthcare workers have left the country, and 50 percent of health and sanitary structures are in ruins, Sargi said.

“Syrians have paid all costs of the war in Syria during the past ten years,” Sargi said, and echoed Khazen’s criticism of the economic sanctions, and specifically the United States’ Caesar Act, saying they have “negatively affected the lives of the Syrian citizens, especially the most vulnerable.”

“The garbage containers in the streets became a source of food for the poorest. All kinds of meat, fruits and even vegetables have become a dream for the majority of our brothers in the homeland,” he said, and urged the international community, and European countries in particular, to lift sanctions on Syria, arguing that the Syrian people do not deserve to live under  these “unfair sanctions in the twenty-first century.”

Cardinal Mario Zenari, the Vatican envoy to Syria since 2008, also spoke during the webinar, stressed the need for progress to be made, saying that after 10 years of conflict, “the peace process is in a deadlock, the reconstruction and the economy recovery haven’t yet started, and many people are losing hope in the future of their country.”

“It is true that bombs and rockets have not fallen on various regions of Syria for some months. However, the terrible ‘bomb’ of poverty has exploded,” he said, noting that Syria currently has the highest poverty rate in the world.

High inflation, the loss of value of Syrian currency, and long lines to get basic food items is “the sad result of ten years of war, corruption and sanctions,” Zenari said, noting that the situation in Syria has been compounded by the political and financial crisis in Lebanon, and the coronavirus.

Many people cannot withdraw any money from the banks because of the collapse of Lebanon’s banks, he said, recalling how Syrians speak of present time as an “economic war” worse than previous years.

Zenari pointed to the upcoming March 29-30 Brussels V Conference, convened in order to refresh international aid in Syria and the Middle East, and voiced hope for a “generous outcome” to the discussions.

“Peace will not come to Syria without reconstruction and without economic recovery. How long will Syrians have to wait? Time is running out,” he said, noting that many people have already lost hope, meaning “urgent and radical solutions are needed” the Syrian government, the opposition, and the international community.

Similarly, Jean-Abdo Arbach, Melkite archbishop of Homs, Hama and Yabroud and president of Caritas Syria, said that personally “I see with my eyes and touch with my hands the suffering of all Syrians.”

Between poverty, a lack of employment and now the COVID-19 pandemic, “Fear is always there among Syrians,” Arbach said.

In the face of worsening poverty and increased displacement and immigration abroad, the question of what to do is increasingly urgent.

At the moment there is little work, few factories, no reconstruction of houses, schools, or hospitals, and “no dignity as a human being,” he said, adding, “We live in a poverty line that is unimaginable and we are all thinking, is there a genocide for Syrians?”

“We want peace, we want dialogue, we ask the government to cooperate with the opposition to regain human dignity,” he said. “How can we live? I wish all parties understanding, to understand what we are suffering in our country.”

Secretary general of Caritas International Aloysius John also weighed in, insisting that the upcoming Brussels Conference is an opportunity to send “a strong message of hope and brotherhood to the Syrian people,” and especially young people, who he said “deserve a better future.”

John issued a fourfold appeal of the international community, asking first of all for sanctions to be removed, arguing that impact of the embargo “only aggravates the humanitarian condition of the Syrians and their living conditions.”

He also pushed for increased access to basic needs and services, including health supplies and COVID-19 vaccine treatments, both inside of Syria and for those living in camps.

Support must also be given to the numerous NGOs providing humanitarian aid in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, John said, insisting on the need to find a peaceful solution to the conflict.

“Military action will only build hatred and will not bring an end to this protracted war. A negotiated peace solution is the only way,” he said, insisting that “peace must be given a chance to avoid continued stalemate, which only results in untold sufferings to the innocent civilians.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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