ROME – Frontline aid workers in Syria have called for an end to international sanctions, saying the situation in the country is dire and is being made worse by the Ukraine conflict and the cumulative toll of sanctions on national infrastructure.

Speaking to Crux, Riad Sargi, executive director of Caritas Syria, said international sanctions and the United States’ Caesar Act “really badly affect life in Syria.”

“In the end, the [victim] of the sanctions is not the richest people, but the poorest people, the children. They survive under abnormal conditions, without education, without medications, without anything, and without food sometimes,” he said.

Caritas is a global federation of 162 Catholic charitable organizations operating in 200 countries around the world. Its leadership was recently replaced by Pope Francis as part of a broader overhaul decreed by the pontiff.

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Signed into law in 2019, the “Caesar Act” sanctions target Syria’s infrastructure, military maintenance and energy production, as well as Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad over alleged war crimes committed by his government against the Syrian people.

Sargi said many people in Syria go hungry “because of the sanctions” and the economic crisis caused by them, including a drastic shift in the exchange rate, in which the Syrian Pound has lost nearly 100 percent of its value since the start of the country’s bloody conflict.

“Before the crisis and before the sanctions, the economy in Syria was really fantastic, in all the Middle East, but now what happened for the people in Syria after the sanctions and after the crisis, is they destroyed around 60-70 percent of the Syrian infrastructure,” Sargi said.

He said much of the country’s water and electricity sectors have been impacted, which has had a disproportionate impact on the poor.

“For the poor people, they cannot survive without electricity,” he said, saying in some areas of Syria, “one hour on, five hours off,” is currently still the norm, making it difficult for families to get by.”

As a humanitarian agency, Caritas attempts to provide basic needs to the poorest populations and to the children in need, “but we found ourselves in a very, very difficult situation, because the number is in the millions. We are talking about millions of children without education, without food, without anything, this is terrible.”

“Our main demand is to remove sanctions on Syria…We all, the patriarch, the bishops, the nuncio in Syria also, ask the international community to remove the sanctions on Syria, because day after day, year after year, they destroy the Syrian people,” Sargi said.

It has been nearly 12 years since Syria’s civil war erupted in March 2011, leaving hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced as the government forcefully attempted to quash pro-democracy protests, with other regional militant groups joining the fight.

Yet while the conflict is largely over and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad remains in office, the country has been thrown into a crippling economic and social crisis in which roughly 90 percent of Syria’s remaining population lives under the poverty line and are unable to afford basic necessities.

According to UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s fund, this year alone an estimated 14.6 million people need humanitarian assistance, more than 6.5 million of whom are children, marking the highest number of people in need recorded since the outbreak of the war in 2011.

Ongoing conflict, continued displacement, deepening poverty and unemployment are all contributing factors, with many pointing the finger at COVID-19 and international sanctions for a hike in prices of basic commodities and the general decline in Syria’s internal situation.

Sargi said that in addition to the struggle to make ends meet, education is also an urgent, major concern.

UNICEF reports that as of this year, some 2.4 million children in Syria aged 5-17 are our of school, which is about half of the roughly 5.52 million school-aged children in Syria. Some have already lost up to 10 years of schooling, putting them at risk for factors such as child labor, early and forced marriage, and recruitment into regional fighting.

Medical care is also a concern, as nearly half of Syria’s primary healthcare system remains non-functional, forcing many families to either delay medical care or take long trips to receive the treatment they need, if they can afford it.

Only 20,000 physicians remain in the country, meaning there are roughly 2.4 medical personnel for every 1,000 people, compared to the international standard of 4.5 per 1,000.

Nearly two-thirds of Syria’s water treatment plants have also been damaged, as well as a significant number of their pumping stations and water towers, meaning much of the population faces water shortages or turns to unsafe sources to meet their needs.

In addition to the mass-scale rebuilding of these and other essential infrastructure, fighting still impacts agriculture, leading to food shortages and increased prices, with sanctions compounding the problem, mainly for the country’s poorest populations.

Sargi said the ongoing war in Ukraine, which has now reached the 9-month mark following Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, has made the situation worse, specifically in their efforts to secure funding for basic humanitarian assistance and rebuilding of infrastructure.

“All the organizations reduced their contributions to Syria, because now there is another priority for the war in Russia and Ukraine,” he said, saying, “this will also badly affect the situation in Syria.”

He voiced concern that the situation in Syria and other regional crises will be forgotten under the shadow of what is happening in the west, saying, “this is true, we feel like this.”

“The priority right now is Ukraine, and Russia, but not Syria,” he said, saying not just Syria, but other areas of the region marked by violent conflict, such as Yemen, also risk being forgotten.

“All are affected by this because the priority now for all, especially European countries, is to support Ukraine and Russia during this war,” he said.

While international assistance is drying up, Sargi said Caritas enjoys generally enjoy good cooperation with Assad and the Syrian government.

“He is our president and was elected by the majority of the Syrian people. We respect them, and they facilitate our work inside Syria,” he said, saying, “We cooperate with the Syrian government for the benefit of the poorest people in Syria. This is our duty, in the end.”

“We hope at the end that the economic situation becomes better, we hope, because otherwise the situation will become worse and worse,” he said, saying, “Our main demand now is to remove the sanctions on Syria, because these sanctions have had a very, very, very bad affect.”

While it is impossible to predict what will happen going forward, Sargi voiced hope that “war will end all over the world, starting from Russia and Ukraine,” and that the situation in Syria would begin to improve.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen