Interview with Ambassador Brigitte Curmi

Sanctions: “Protect Syrians and seek a political solution”

The earthquake that has ravaged Turkey and Syria has put the sanctions against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime back on the agenda. Are they still justified? Are they effective? Do they hurt the regime or the population? Brigitte Curmi, French Ambassador for Syria, answers our questions.

Distribution of humanitarian aid in Atareb, Aleppo province, 10 February 2023
Aaref Watad/AFP

Alain Gresh. — Aid convoys in north-west Syria have been blocked for a week, and international assistance is arriving in dribs and drabs. Why?

Brigitte Curmi. — There are logistical reasons, obviously, related to blocked roads and the chaos caused by the earthquake for humanitarian workers in the first days, but also political reasons that prevented the UN from swiftly delivering all of its assistance to the north-west.

Whose fault is it? I would like to mention here that Russia and Syria have systematically hindered the renewal of cross-border assistance from Turkey for the past three years. From the four crossing points authorised by the UN Security Council in 2014 in the north, east and south of Syria, they were reduced to just Bab Al-Hawa in 2021, while the validity period under the UN resolution authorising this assistance to Syrian populations in the north was reduced to six months, despite all our efforts at the Security Council meetings in New York, where the negotiations were constrained by the position of Russia, which has a veto right.

As Bab Al-Hawa is very close to the quake’s epicentre, the roads used to deliver this international assistance were severely damaged. It took eight days of negotiations for Assad – under pressure from a new draft resolution – to finally authorise the opening of two former crossing points into this area. Meanwhile, the Syrians in the north-west of the country were left to fend for themselves, with only the extraordinary work of the rescue NGOs already on-site to help them.

A. G.Did the United States and the European Union (EU) lift certain sanctions on Syria after the earthquake?

B. C. — The EU, just like the United States and the United Kingdom, responded after the earthquake by introducing a cross-cutting exemption in its sanctions regime to further facilitate humanitarian operations and respond to the needs of the populations.

Some saw this exemption as proof that the sanctions do prevent humanitarian assistance from getting through, as the regime claims. That is not the case at all: the European sanctions already incorporated an entire series of waivers and exemptions for the humanitarian field. The new measures taken in Brussels aim first and foremost to enable the NGOs to work more smoothly and swiftly, particularly with regard to their banks which, as a precaution, sometimes adopt over-compliance (derisking).

“One diplomacy tool among many”

A. G.The sanctions were seen by western countries as a way to change Damascus’s policy. But we have not seen any change in its policy. Are they a failure?

B. C. — The European sanctions, which are targeted, do have a long-term objective which is to change the Syrian regime’s repressive policy. They also aim to hinder the activity of persons and institutions close to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, by freezing their assets and preventing their transactions going through the EU. Our sanctions are effective: they have halted the proliferation networks of weapons of mass destruction in Syria; they are drying up the resources of the Syrian repressive apparatus and prevent leading figures in the regime from travelling in Europe. Our sanctions are targeted and specific, they do not target or prevent the export of essential goods or food and pharmaceutical products.

That said, the sanctions are one diplomacy tool among many, to tackle an extremely complex conflict. We cannot presume to say they have failed because the regime has not changed. Their lifting depends on its desire to respond to the clear, precise demands stated in UN Security Council Resolution 2254. It is because the regime is uncompromising that the sanctions are still in place. The lifting of sanctions is in its hands, and the hands of Iran and Russia, which showed it unfailing support in their own interest, at a time when it was the most threatened.

A. G.When we talk about sanctions against Syria, what exactly is being referred to? Can you go into detail? Who decides on the sanctions? Are the sanctions put in place by the United States not the same as those enforced by Europe?

B. C. — The EU unanimously adopted restrictive measures against the Syrian regime in May 2011 to respond to the violent repression practised by the regime against its population. The sanctions are enshrined in two texts: a European Council decision1 which applies to states and a regulation2 which applies to EU citizens everywhere in the world and to legal entities established within the EU. Since 2011, these sanctions have regularly been added to and adapted to make the tool more specific and effective. Unlike some of the American sanctions, the European measures are not extraterritorial.

In concrete terms, there are individual measures and industry-specific restrictions.

For the individual measures, these are restrictions such as asset freezes, and bans on travel to Europe, for example, against individuals or entities linked to the Syrian regime’s repression or financing. They target the top generals in the Syrian armed forces, ministers and other businessmen linked to Syria’s leaders, state enterprises, and shell companies that allow the regime to circumvent sanctions. These measures mean it is forbidden to enter into a business relationship with them, for example.

With regard to industry-specific measures, they ban certain transactions in the financial and banking, weapons and energy sectors in Syria. Exporting equipment and technologies used for the purposes of repression in Syria is forbidden. The financing of the regime via the purchase of government bonds, the provision of insurance and brokerage services, the printing of currency for the central bank and the delivery of gold and precious metals are banned. No luxury goods may be exported to Syria. Certain sectors such as electricity generation are targeted by more limited restrictions that aim to prevent new contracts from being signed, but they do, however, allow existing projects to continue.

As I said, there are many exemptions and exceptions included within the sanctions regime, in particular for humanitarian workers and activities. These exceptions and exemptions were recently bolstered by a very broad, cross-cutting exemption that will further facilitate the response to the earthquake.

US extraterritorial measures

A. G.Are some companies and banks, including in Europe, not applying “broader” sanctions than those adopted, for fear of being taken to court in the United States? And are civilian populations not those being hurt the most?

B. C. — It is true that this is a complex issue. Certain American sanctions have extraterritorial reach, while others apply only to transactions carried out in part on American soil. Some European companies and banks therefore choose to apply American sanctions just in case or, sometimes, because they are obliged to if they carry out their transactions in dollars, for example.

As a state, we cannot force private actors to carry out transactions that they deem risky. However, we are working at European level to clarify the existing regulations as far as possible, communicating and publishing guides to sanctions and introducing exemptions and exceptions where necessary, all with a view to limiting over-compliance.

I often hear that civilian populations are those hurt most by international sanctions, but it is not true. It is the narrative of the regime and its supporters, who are responsible for the catastrophic situation in which they have left Syria and its people. This prejudice is an enduring one, but neither European nor American sanctions ever target goods and services essential for everyday life and support to the population.

On the contrary, it is the mismanagement of a corrupt, repressive and criminal regime that has left Syria in ruins and thrown its people into poverty. It is quite incredible that sanctions are currently being accused of being responsible for the suffering of the Syrian people, while the regime has spent 12 years bombarding its people, including with chemical weapons, and is currently diverting post-earthquake humanitarian assistance and blocking convoys to the north-west of the country.

Since 2011, the EU has been the leading donor supporting the Syrian people in the face of this crisis, providing more than €25 billion in assistance. We must remember that many of the buildings affected by the earthquake had already been either destroyed or seriously weakened by the constant bombardments of the regime and Russia. In the face of this tragedy, our duty is two-fold: we must not abandon the Syrian people, wherever they are, and we must not fall into the trap laid by Damascus, which is instrumentalizing the disaster to its own advantage.

A system created by Russia and Iran to circumvent sanctions

A. G. Russia and Iran have set up a system to circumvent sanctions which has given the two countries a greater hold over Syria. Are sanctions not worsening this dependency?

B. C. — Iran has had a foothold in Syria for more than 30 years and picked its side at the outset of the conflict, encouraging the Syrian regime to give no ground and to take the military option, against a people who demanded basic rights. Russia has made Syria a “laboratory,” with the results we are seeing in Ukraine, as it supports the regime’s repression, as it constantly and indifferently bombards the people of Syria, to save the master of Damascus in order to have geostrategic leverage in the Mediterranean. The Syrian regime has voluntarily accepted this hold, as it would rather lose its people than share power. None of that has much to do with the sanctions regime, although we do need to find more effective means to stop them being circumvented. Regardless of what it says, the Syrian regime is making no effort to reduce this dependency, which is of great concern to us. Iranian paramilitary groups and militias are spreading in the south of the country on both sides of the Euphrates, engaging alongside the regime in drug trafficking that harms the whole region, particularly Jordan and the Gulf States. In the long run, Europe itself may be affected.

The EU has sanctioned these destabilising Russian-Iranian activities in Syria several times. All these actions compromise the inclusive political solution – a purely Syrian one – that is so needed for just and lasting peace to emerge.

A. G.The sanctions against Syria are all the more unpopular in the region because the regime does not appear to be paying the price. As in Iraq, do the sanctions not strengthen the regime’s control over the people? Have we learned lessons from the Iraq sanctions? More generally, there is strong sense in the South that the countries of the former “Third World” are always the ones targeted.

B. C. — Unlike the old embargo against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the sanctions against Syria are targeted at specific economic sectors. They are aimed at the repressive apparatus and warlords and in no case at the population, which the sanctions aim on the contrary to protect. We did learn lessons from Iraq.

But you are right: perceptions are very important and we need to step up our efforts more than ever to explain why we do things and to what end. Our policy in Syria aims to protect the Syrian people and seek a political solution addressing the root causes of the crisis. European sanctions are just one of the tools at our disposal to pressure the regime and push for it to change. The adoption of a cross-cutting exemption following the earthquake shows that we are capable of adapting to an emergency while maintaining the core of our approach. We will continue actively supporting Syrians in Syria and those who have sought refuge in various host countries. The EU and its Member States have been the Syrians’ leading humanitarian donors by far since 2011. France is determined to continue this effort alongside all Syrians, in all regions of Syria and in the countries where they have sought refuge.