After the earthquake: End the U.S. war on Syria once and for all
Adapted from a presentation given at a Solidarity Committee of the Americas event in Minneapolis, Minnesota on February 11.
I’m not a scholarly expert; I’m a maintenance worker in Minneapolis who volunteers with a local activist group called the Anti-War Committee. In May of 2021, I traveled with a peace delegation to Syria. The delegation spent one week in the country, in and around the capital Damascus, to witness elections that were taking place, and to investigate conditions on the ground with the hope of building solidarity and raising awareness about the effects that U.S. foreign policy has on life in Syria.
That said, this week in particular is one when everyone, expert or not, whether you’ve been there or not, should be talking about Syria. Last weekend’s earthquake heavily impacted northern Syria, near the border with Turkiye. The current estimate of the number of people who died in this tragedy stands at over 30,000 – around 4000 or so in Syria. Many of those who died in Turkiye were likely also Syrians – around 3.5 million Syrian refugees currently reside in Turkiye. Everyone can feel confident in demanding an end to U.S. sanctions on Syria in the aftermath of this tragedy.
This week, the Biden administration announced it would temporarily ease some sanctions on humanitarian aid to Syria. A few things about that: First of all, this is a stunning admission, because the U.S. previously had claimed that the sanctions on Syria don’t affect humanitarian supplies. Now they are admitting that sanctions needed to be lifted for aid to get in. To be clear, it’s good that the administration is doing something, if for no other reason than that it shows they are feeling some political pressure, and people are paying attention to the issue of sanctions. But it’s not nearly enough.
The massive tragedy comes on top of another massive tragedy, the war in Syria, which has killed at least half a million Syrians since 2012, and has been fueled by U.S. policy in a variety of ways.
U.S. officials, first during the Trump administration and now under Biden, have openly declared that the objective of U.S. sanctions on Syria is to prevent “reconstruction” – unless the Syrian government agrees to a new, U.S.-approved political system and geopolitical orientation for the country, effectively overriding its sovereign rights under international law. Specifically, the long-standing U.S. demand for Syria has been to normalize its relations with Israel and officially give up the Golan Heights region, which Israel has illegally occupied since 1967. Until Syria capitulates to these demands, the U.S. government’s policy boils down to collectively punishing all Syrians, civilians included, and forcing them to live in literally ruinous conditions.
You might say that under its current policies toward Syria, the U.S. is on the earthquake’s side. An earthquake means more ruined buildings that won’t get rebuilt, and more misery, poverty and death for Syrians, which effectively has been the U.S. policy for over a decade.
One of my most immediate impressions when we traveled to Syria was that in many areas, the shooting war is over. In the Damascus region where we visited, the government has restored control entirely, and while there were occasional checkpoints, to my surprise we were able to move about relatively freely. But the scars of the war were still everywhere. In some neighborhoods, there were just a few bullet holes here and there. In others, the destruction was total: ruined husks of apartment buildings and colossal mounds of concrete rubble stretched as far as we could see.
Despite the scenes of destruction, at the time of our trip (about a year and a half ago), people we spoke with were hopeful. Reconstruction was happening, although slowly. Here and there, renovated apartments stood out amid the ruins, sometimes in a jarring way, where shiny new balconies appeared next to uninhabitable ones within the same building. People we spoke with complained about a slow pace of reconstruction due to difficulties in sourcing building materials and equipment due to the sanctions. But they also repeatedly told us: things are getting better, the war is ending, tell Syrians living abroad that they can start returning home!
Unfortunately, by now that progress has been halted. U.S. sanctions, especially the Caesar Act, passed in 2019, have really begun to bite. Last year the Syrian currency collapsed, which was connected to a similar economic collapse in neighboring Lebanon (which in turn was exacerbated by U.S. sanctions on that country).
Meanwhile, the U.S. military continues to occupy Syria’s oilfields in the east of the country, illegally under international law, with not even the usual flimsy legalistic justification, just might-is-right conquest. “Keep the oil” was what Trump called the policy, and Biden has stayed the course. Most Syrians reportedly now only get two or three hours of electricity per day if they're lucky. Gasoline is so scarce that people can’t get to work. The government has even shifted to a four-day work week due to logistical difficulties as basic as transportation. Bakeries are closing. Cooking and heating oil are so scarce that according to reports, some Syrians must burn trash to heat their homes.
Syria has been sanctioned and labeled a “state sponsor of terrorism” by the U.S. since the late 1970s. This current horrific humanitarian situation is the result – not just as a consequence of the sanctions themselves, but also in how Syria has been portrayed to the American public. U.S. policies toward Syria have dehumanized Syrian people in the eyes of many, portraying the country as a zone of permanent destruction, as though this is somehow the natural state of things there.
Many Syrians we spoke with were adamant that it’s in fact the United States that is the real state sponsor of terrorism, especially inside Syria. They’re not wrong – the U.S. along with its regional allies bankrolled the war in Syria for many years, arming and paying the salaries of a patchwork of contra gangs that supposedly comprised the Free Syrian Army. I say “supposedly,” because there was never any unified organization of these groups – in reality they were no more than a disunified hodgepodge of militias, some local and others foreign, coming from places as far flung as Uzbekistan, China, France and the UK.
A significant number of these U.S.-armed and paid mercenaries would eventually take their weapons and defect to even more extreme reactionary groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. At the same time, the U.S. supported the self-declared “Syrian National Council” – based outside of Syria – as a potential replacement for President Bashar al-Assad’s government, despite the fact that none of the U.S.-armed contras fighting on the ground even supported it. The unavoidable conclusion is that the U.S. never really intended for the armed groups to overthrow the Syrian government themselves – they only backed them up to a certain point, as a way to terrorize and coerce the Syrian people.
So with that I’ll conclude by saying that we all need to demand not only the end to U.S. sanctions, but for a broad change in U.S. policy toward Syria: let Syria rebuild; let Syrians recover from the earthquake and the war; end the occupation of Syria’s oil fields; end decades of dehumanization and destabilizing plots to coerce the Syrian people. Let Syrians determine their own future.
Wyatt Miller is an activist with the Minneapolis-based Anti-War Committee. In May 2021, he traveled with an international peace delegation to Syria, at the invitation of the Syria Support Movement and Arab Americans 4 Syria.