Is the U.S. Exacerbating the Syrian Human Rights Catastrophe?

I was the NSC lead on the Middle East and North Africa in the opening phase of the Syrian civil war in 2011-2012.  I participated in the Obama administration’s deliberations and continued to follow events after leaving government; for this purpose I traveled to Syria and wrote about the sanctions dilemma for the Quincy Institute and Foreign Affairs

Syria’s population faces conflicting human rights deficits. On the one hand, the victims of Bashar al Assad’s regime want justice for its past crimes and an end to its ongoing abuses of human rights.  Past abuses stained the reputations of previous governments, going back to the era before the advent of Baath Party rule in the 1960s.  

France’s use of violence to enforce order during the Mandate period and then under Vichy rule no doubt played a role in inculcating violations of human rights as a reflexive response to political challenges in the post–colonial era. Whether subsequent Syrian governments would have needed instruction will never be known with any certainty, but French governance was undoubtedly a perverse inspiration.  

The Assad government’s response to the Arab Spring protests in 2011 was exceedingly violent.  It included arbitrary arrest and detention, absence of due process, torture and extra–judicial killing.  Protesters, and the opposition to Assad rule more widely were systematically deprived of their human rights. In suppressing the rebellion that mushroomed in 2011 and during the civil war that followed, Assad’s forces used chemical weapons, weapons of indiscriminate effect, and targeting of protected installations. 

At the same time, the descent into civil war led to its own nightmarish spiral of cruelty. Crimes committed by sectarian fundamentalist forces opposing the Assad government intensified these horrors and validated Alawite and Christian fears of genocidal annihilation. The involvement of outside powers on opposite sides of the civil war ratcheted up the violence. Hundreds of thousands of noncombatants were killed and perhaps millions were internally displaced or forced into exile.

Many Syrians seek justice for the crimes of the Assad government. Hopefully there will be accountability. But the Assad government defeated its adversaries with the considerable help of the Russian Federation and Islamic Republic of Iran. Although Assad does not exert control over all of Syrian territory, it is his government that has a seat in the UN General Assembly.  Since Assad will obviously not hold his own side accountable for its crimes, justice will require that the regime be dislodged. No outside power is likely to take this on. Given the experience of the civil war, it is also likely that regime change would unleash a tidal wave of violence against Alawites and Christians that would deprive these communities of their human rights.

Syrians whose human rights were violated by the Assad government, and their supporters in the United States and Europe, have sought to level punitive economic sanctions against an otherwise unassailable Assad government. Choosing economic sanctions over military force, despite their repeated failure to achieve their stated objectives, is understandable. In this case, U.S. sanctions are extraterritorial — i.e.the laws authorizing the sanctions apply to other countries as well. Foreign states that wish to trade with Syria are also subject to sanctions. 

The desire to punish sovereign violators of human rights runs deep, as does the hope of toppling vicious rulers by bankrupting them through sanctions. Yet it is also widely understood that sanctions are generally ineffective and that they punish ordinary people rather than their intended targets, who are immune by virtue of their privilege, instruments of control, and access to resources that sanctions cannot reach.  Given that these conditions are widely studied and broadly acknowledged, sanctions devolve to performance, not policy. And sending messages to oppressors through the bodies of the oppressed is deeply unethical. Indeed, it further undermines the human rights of the immiserated population and provides neither justice nor relief.

This assault on Syrians’ right to more than just humanitarian aid, which they do receive, continues. As a result, a traumatized population has no formal economy in which it can participate.  In much of the country, there is virtually no physical infrastructure, no health care system, no educational system, no transportation system, limited power generation and transmission and, of course, few opportunities for employment. An entire generation of Syrians has been lost. Humanitarian aid, as essential as it is, will not foster economic recovery and demand for workers. These things are unattainable without the foreign direct investment that U.S. sanctions effectively block.  These sanctions are pointlessly cruel. Nor do they have any impact on the Assad regime, the Assad family, or their pillars of support. 

The clash between the desire to hold sovereign human rights violators accountable in an authoritarian state, and preserve the rights of ordinary people to access  jobs, public health, education, and a decent standard of living, all of which are also human rights, is profoundly difficult to resolve. In our work, we aim to strike a balance that stands the best chance of leaving the most people better off. In the case of Syria, the options are all unsatisfactory. But it is our responsibility to seek solutions that do not collectively punish the innocent.