The United States, the European Union, the Arab League, Turkey, Canada and Australia have collectively taken measures since 2011, and the United States since 1979, to destroy Syria’s economy. The measures are illegal under international law, which prohibits states from using economic pressure, outside the framework of the UN Security Council, to coerce other states. With Syrians fleeing sanctions-induced economic collapse, joblessness, crumbling infrastructure and a public health care system in tatters, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Syria has spoken out. But is anyone listening?
June 23, 2018
By Stephen Gowans
Washington’s long war on Syria comprises three major elements: a proxy war waged by Islamist insurgents; an occupation of almost one-third of Syria by US and allied troops ; and a program of economic warfare. If we understand war to represent an attempt by one state to impose its will on another, then all three elements, including the economic one, are expressions of war, and Washington’s long war on Syria must be understood as a multi-faceted enterprise involving more than aerial bombing, firefights, cruise missile launches, and suicide attacks, however much the military aspects of the war command attention and the economic aspects evade it.
That economic warfare, or sanctions, can properly be considered a form of warfare is evidenced in the description of sanctions in international law as “coercive economic measures”. “Coercion” is coterminous with one state imposing its will on (that is, coercing) another. The Human Rights Council of the United Nations recognizes that some states have used economic measures to coerce other states “to obtain from [them] the subordination of the exercise of [their] sovereign rights and to secure … advantages.”  In its aims and effects, economic coercion is indistinguishable from military coercion. That is, not only are its goals the same, but its consequences—the breakdown of economies, collapse of infrastructure and government support systems, disease, malnutrition, and death—are also the same.
The coercive economic measures deployed by Western states to impose their will on other states are largely invisible to Western publics. Few citizens of the countries which deploy anti-Syria sanctions appear to know that the Arab state has been inflicted with “a complex network of non-UN ‘economic sanctions’” , and that one country, the United States, has waged an unceasing economic war on Syria since the late 1970s.
Western publics also appear to be largely unaware that:
0 These measures, implemented without the imprimatur of the UN Security Council, are “contrary to international law, international humanitarian law, the [UN] Charter and the norms and principles governing peaceful relations among States”; 
0 “[T]hose involved in delivering humanitarian projects consistently report that [sanctions] often … act as an impediment in the smooth and rapid delivery of humanitarian aid”; 
0 And that sanctions “have had a devastating impact on the entire economy and the daily lives of ordinary Syrians.”  Indeed, referring to the coercive economic measures imposed on Syria by the West, the UN’s Special Rapporteur has concluded that “Claims that [the sanctions] exist to protect the Syrian population, or to promote a democratic transition, are hard to reconcile with the economic and humanitarian suffering being caused.” 
The virtual invisibility of illegal coercive economic measures to Western publics makes the measures particularly attractive to Western states as a means of waging war. People cannot object to a war they’re unaware of. Additionally, when people are aware of their governments’ sanctions, the measures are widely misunderstood as a pacific alternative to military intervention, and misrepresented as having effects limited to the decision-makers of enemy governments, rather than correctly understood as an instrument of war, with devastating consequences for the enemy country’s civilian population. Hence, when citizens know their government has sanctioned another state, they are likely to believe the measures are largely immaterial for the targeted country’s civilian population, and are at best a nuisance to the country’s leadership.
This is far from the truth. The reality is that the effects of sanctions are often more lethal than the consequences of conventional military coercion. Writing in Foreign Affairs, the unofficial journal of the US State Department, John Mueller and Karl Mueller showed that the coercive economic measures inflicted upon Iraq during the 1990s produced more deaths than all the weapons of mass destruction in history, including all the chemical weapons used in the First World War and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, the Muellers found coercive economic measures to be so devastating to qualify as instruments of mass destruction, even more injurious to civilian populations that weapons of mass destruction. 
Considering that the number of deaths attributable to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (200,000) are less than half as large as the number of sanctions-related deaths in Iraq (more than 500,000), the implication is that the economic element of the war on the Arab nationalist state was tantamount to an attack of two atom bombs.  Viewed in this light, it is difficult to apprehend coercive economic measures as a pacific alternative to military coercion. They are, on the contrary, instruments of war whose effects may well be far more devastating than military measures, and therefore, more effective in coercing their target, but also more inhumane and more objectionable on moral grounds.
The coercive economic measures inflicted on Syria by the United States:
• Began long before the 2011 Islamist unrest in Syria, challenging the view that they are a reaction to the Syrian government’s response to the jihadist revolt (presented in the West dishonestly as a democratic uprising);
• Are illegal, impugning the view that the United States and its allies seek to uphold the rule of law and a rule-governed international order;
• Have caused immense suffering among ordinary Syrians, contesting the notion that the use of coercive economic measures by Washington and its allies is motivated by humanitarian considerations.
The US-led project of anti-Syria economic coercion—illegal, destructive, and a major cause of economic breakdown and human suffering—has but one aim: to create intolerable misery in Syria until Damascus capitulates to the international dictatorship of the United States.
The United States imposed sanctions on Syria as early as 1979, designating the Arab republic a state sponsor of terrorism, citing its support for groups engaged in the anti-colonial struggle against Washington’s principal proxy in the Arab world, Israel. Anti-colonial struggle was defamed as terrorism and support for the former maligned as support for the latter.
Washington stepped up its coercive economic measures against Syria on December 12, 2003, in the wake of the US invasion and occupation of neighboring Iraq. A year earlier, Washington had declared Syria part of an Axis of Evil, along with Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Libya (two of these countries, Iraq and Libya, were subsequently invaded and regime changed.) The Congressional Research Service—the US Congress’s think tank—revealed that Washington contemplated an invasion of Syria following the invasion of Iraq, but that the unanticipated heavy burden of pacifying Iraq and Afghanistan militated against an additional expenditure of blood and treasure in Syria.  As an alternative, the United States chose to pressure Damascus through sanctions and support for jihadist groups opposed to the secular Arab nationalist government; in other words, Washington reached for different instruments to prosecute its war on Syria.The principal component of the 2003 tranche of US sanctions, the Syria Accountability Act, was aimed at coercing Damascus to abandon its support for Hezbollah and Palestinian resistance groups and to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction, especially its chemical weapons, and to forswear the acquisition of other WMD. To put this simply, the Arab republic was expected to renounce the anti-colonial struggle and to surrender its means of self-defense. The sanctions included bans on the export of military equipment and civilian goods that could be used for military purposes (in other words, practically anything). This was reinforced with an additional (and largely superfluous) ban on U.S. exports to Syria other than food and medicine. 
On top of these sanctions, the Bush administration imposed two more. Under the USA Patriot Act, the U.S. Treasury Department ordered U.S. financial institutions to sever connections with the Commercial Bank of Syria, severely restricting Syria’s access to the world’s banking system. And under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, the U.S. president froze the assets of Syrians involved in supporting policies hostile to the United States, which is to say, supporting Hezbollah and groups fighting for Palestinian self-determination, refusing to acquiesce to Zionist colonialism, and operating a largely publicly-owned, state-planned economy, based on what US government researchers termed “Soviet models.” 
The sanctions devastated Syria. In October 2011, The New York Times reported that the Syrian economy “was buckling under the pressure of sanctions by the West.”  By the spring of 2012, sanctions-induced financial hemorrhaging had “forced Syrian officials to stop providing education, health care and other essential services in some parts of the country,” according to The Washington Post. 
If that weren’t enough, Washington imposed yet another tranche of sanctions in 2011. The European Union followed with its own coercive economic measures, imposing “considerable restrictions on the types of financial services” EU banks could “offer in Syria.” The sanctions also prohibited “the export into Syria of certain ‘dual use’ goods.”  “In totality, the US and EU sanctions on Syria are some of the most complicated and far-reaching sanctions regimes ever imposed,” concluded a report prepared for the United Nations Economic & Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA).  And yet, Turkey, the Arab League, Canada and Australia, felt compelled to add to the staggering weight of sanctions already inflicted on the small Arab republic.
In May of this year, the Special Rapporteur on Syria described the sanctions— “different packages of collective sectoral measures, together with the across-the-board … financial restrictions”— as “tantamount in their global impact to the imposition of comprehensive restrictions” —in other words, effectively a total blockade.
And while exceptions are theoretically carved out to allow the flow of humanitarian relief into Syria, a report prepared for ESCWA pointed out that there “is perilous reluctance among western suppliers and banks to offer humanitarian goods and related finance, in part, for fear of sanctions issues, such as fines for inadvertent technical violations.”  The Special Rapporteur observed that “The uncertainty around what transactions do, or do not violate the unilateral coercive measures, have created a ‘chilling effect’ on international banks and companies, which as a result are unwilling or unable to do business with Syria.”  As a consequence, the entry points through which humanitarian aid is supposed to flow exist in theory alone.
Since 2011 “the total annual GDP of Syria has fallen by two thirds. Foreign currency reserves have been depleted, and international financial and other assets remain frozen.’”  The damage to the economy has impaired “the ability of Syrians to realize their economic, social and cultural rights,” reports the Special Rapporteur. “Syria’s human development indicators have all tumbled. There has been a staggering increase in the rate of poverty among ordinary Syrians. While there was no food insecurity prior to the outbreak of violence, by 2015 32% of Syrians were affected. At the same time unemployment rose from 8.5% in 2010 to over 48% in 2015.” 
Financial sanctions have severely limited Damascus’s ability to purchase drugs, medical equipment, spare parts and software. In “practice international private companies are unwilling to jump the hurdles necessary to ensure they can transact [business] with Syria without being accused of inadvertently violating the restrictive measures.”  As a consequence, Syria’s public health care system—once, one of the finest in the region—is in a state of virtual collapse.
The Special Rapporteur notes that:
The ban on the trade in equipment, machinery and spare parts has devastated Syrian industry. Vehicles, including ambulances and fire trucks, as well as agricultural machinery suffer from a lack of spare parts. Failing water pumps gravely affect the water supply and reduce agricultural production. Power generation plants are failing, and new plants cannot be purchased or maintained, leading to power outages. Complex machinery requiring international technicians for maintenance are failing, damaging medical devices and factory machinery. Civilian aircraft are no longer able to fly safely, and public transit buses are in woeful condition. 
On top of this:
Syrians are unable to purchase many technologies, including mobile phones and computers. The global dominance of American software companies, technology companies, and banking and financial software, all of which are banned, has made it difficult to find alternatives. This has paralyzed or disrupted large parts of Syrian institutions. 
Finally, the West’s coercive economic measures have contributed strongly to the migration crisis
While the security situation was a central factor which led to migration flows from Syria, it should be emphasized that the dramatic increase in unemployment, the lack of job opportunities, the closure of factories unable to obtain raw materials or machinery or to export their goods have all contributed to increasing the emigration of Syrians. Some [Western states] have selected skilled migrants, while pressuring the less fortunate to return to Syria. This ‘brain drain’ has harmed the medical and pharmaceutical industries in particular, at the worst possible time for Syria. 
Commenting on the sanctions, the veteran foreign affairs correspondent Patrick Cockburn observed that the US and EU sanctions resemble the Iraqi sanctions regime, and are “an economic siege on Syria.” He surmised that the siege is killing numberless Syrians through disease and malnutrition, as the siege on Iraq killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis during the 1990s. 
All of this is illegal. Sanctions outside of the Security Council framework are prohibited under international law. And yet the United States, the European Union, Canada and Australia—countries which present themselves as champions of the rule of law and a rules-based international order—thwart the very rule of law they claim to uphold. By their actions, they reveal that it is not a rules-based international order they seek, but a US-dictated international order, in which the rules apply to all states but the United States, which rules. As Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, unapologetically put it in the current (July/August 2018) issue of Foreign Affairs:
Many forget…that even the UN Charter, which prohibits nations from using military force against other nations or intervening in their internal affairs, privileges the strong over the weak. … As the Indian strategist C. Raja Mohan has observed, superpowers are “exceptional”; that is, when they decide it suits their purpose, they make exceptions for themselves. The fact that in the first 17 years of this century, the self-proclaimed leader of the [rules-based international] order invaded two countries, conducted air strikes and Special Forces raids to kill hundreds of people it unilaterally deemed to be terrorists, and subjected scores of others to ‘extraordinary rendition,’ often without any international legal authority (and sometimes without even national legal authority), speaks for itself. 
Allison added: The United States has never “refrained from using military force to protect its interests when the use of force violated international rules.”  He might have added that neither has it ever allowed the rule of law to deter it from using economic coercion.
The hypocrisy doesn’t end there. These same states have arrogated onto themselves the mantle of privileged interpreters and defenders of human rights, while at the same time negating the human rights of the people who live in former colonized countries whose states assert their independence in the face of Western efforts to abridge their sovereignty. Both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights declare that a people may not be deprived of its own means of subsistence—precisely what the West’s economic sanctions are intended to do. Additionally, the UN’s Human Rights Council declares that “unilateral coercive measures [have negative impacts] on the right to life, the rights to health and medical care, the right to freedom from hunger and the right to an adequate standard of living, food, education, work and housing.” 
According to the Article 5 of the United Nation’s Declaration on the Right to Development:
States shall take resolute steps to eliminate the massive and flagrant violations of the human rights of peoples and human beings affected by situations such as those resulting from…foreign domination and occupation, aggression, foreign interference and threats against national sovereignty, national unity and territorial integrity, threats of war and refusal to recognize the fundamental rights of peoples to self-determination.
Notwithstanding this declaration, Washington and its allies have actively taken steps to interfere in Syria’s internal affairs, issue threats of war and undertake aggressions, violate Syria’s territorial integrity, and occupy part of its territory.
What’s more, states are prohibited from using “any type of measure, including but not limited to economic or political measures, to coerce another State in order to obtain from it the subordination of the exercise of its sovereign rights and to secure from it advantages of any kind.” 
Western states may object, protesting that they seek in their imposition of sanctions no advantages for themselves, but only to bring about a democratic transition in Syria. The objection is easily dismissed as false.
To begin, the Islamist insurgents supported by the West, aspire, not to a democratic transition, but to the rule of the Koran (or their interpretation of it); indeed, they regard democracy as a man-made system of governance, inferior to what they see as the God-given way revealed in Islam. The major opposition to the Syrian government on the ground has been ISIS, al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups—hardly democrats. 
Syria, by contrast, is one of the few Arab countries with an elected legislature and elected president. A fortiori, the country’s last presidential election had multiple candidates. Whatever the shortcomings of Syria’s democracy, it is closer to the model the West holds up as a paragon than are the autocratic political systems of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Jordan, among Washington’s principal Arab satellites—kingdoms in which pro-democracy activism is ruthlessly suppressed.
As for the main US proxy in the region, Israel, it is a herrenvolk (master-race) democracy—a democracy for Jews, and Jewish state for Arabs—hardly an inclusive, liberal democracy, but an exclusive, illiberal, and racist one.
Hence, if Washington’s friends in the region are autocrats and master-race democrats, and the country in which it professes to seek a democratic transition resembles the Western model of parliamentary democracy to a greater degree than the United States’ most esteemed regional allies, how can we believe that Washington is genuinely seeking to achieve a democratic transition in Syria?
Of course, we can’t. The idea that considerations related to democracy promotion—and not empire-building—lie at the base of Washington’s Syria policy is so strongly at variance with the facts, that the fact that this is believed at all is testament to the extraordinary power of Western states and their mass media to implant in the public mind representations of the world that are completely untethered from reality.
Like atom bombs, sanctions are indiscriminate. They kill both combatants and non-combatants, government employees as well as civilians. As such, their imposition ought to be “seen as a war crime”, since they involve, as Patrick Cockburn argues, “the collective punishment of millions of innocent civilians who die, sicken or are reduced to living off scraps from the garbage dumps.” Cockburn urges us to be “just as outraged by the impact of this sort of thing” as we are “by the destruction of hospitals by bombing and artillery fire.” The trouble, however, is that “the picture of X-ray or kidney dialysis machines lacking essential spare parts is never going to compete for impact with film of dead and wounded on the front line. And those who die because medical equipment has been disabled by sanctions are likely to do so undramatically and out of sight.” 
Building bulwarks against economic atom bombing
Frantz Fanon once remarked that “’When a colonial and imperialist power is forced to give independence to a people, this imperialist power says: ‘you want independence? Then take it and die of hunger.’ Because the imperialists continue to have economic power, they can condemn a people to hunger, by means of blockades, embargoes, or underdevelopment.” 
US president Donald Trump expressed the same idea, though from an entirely different point of view: “Economic security is national security”  he observed, though he said this in connection with the challenge China poses to US high-tech supremacy and Washington’s efforts to overcome the challenge by invoking the need for tariffs on national security grounds. In highlighting the nexus between economic security and national security, Trump invoked a question that is central to anti-colonial struggles.
Anti-colonial struggle has two phases: the first, a military one, aims to achieve titular political independence. The second phase is an economic one.  Its goal is scientific and technological advancement as the foundation of self-sufficiency, self-sufficiency as the foundation of economic independence, and economic independence as the foundation of authentic political independence. 
Few former colonial or semi-colonial countries have advanced toward these second-phase goals. But China, one of the world’s poorest countries when Mao’s forces came to power in 1949, has. Under the guidance of the communist party, it has achieved economic development of such magnitude as to challenge “the Great Divergence,” the separation of humanity into a minority of rich countries and majority of poor ones, inaugurated by the European conquest and rapine of the Americas over 500 years ago. And it has done so with a mixture of engagement with the world market, industrial planning, and economic dirigisme, guided by the ultimate aim of completing the anti-colonial revolution and overcoming five centuries of Western economic supremacy and political tyranny.
Without the advantages that have allowed China to successfully pursue its path of anti-colonial struggle, other anti-imperialist states of the global south continue to struggle, hobbled by economic dependency, still trapped in a strait-jacket of neo-colonialism. As such, they remain at the mercy of the West’s economic atom bombs.
For the Western left, its potential areas of contribution to the meaningful emancipation of the global south from its enslavement by the north are three-fold: First, to pressure Western governments to abandon their projects of economic coercion. Part of this involves lifting the humanitarian veil behind which the hideous face of sanctions has been concealed. The second is to pressure Western governments to give formerly colonized countries space to pursue self-directed economic development. The third is to recognize that radical democratic, worker-centric or autarkic economies may not be practical routes for formerly colonized countries to achieve economic development and independence. Engagement with markets at home and abroad, economic incentives, a role for both state-owned and private enterprises, and state planning, under the guiding hand of parties committed to carrying through the anti-colonial struggle to fruition via its second, economic, phase, may be the most promising routes to challenging the Great Divergence and creating a bulwark against the West’s economic atom bombs.
1. Stephen Gowans, “The (largely) unrecognized US occupation of Syria,” what’s left, March 11, 2018, https://gowans.wordpress.com/2018/03/11/the-largely-unrecognized-us-occupation-of-syria/
2. “Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural, including the right to development,” Resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council, Human rights and unilateral coercive measures, Twenty-seventh session, October 3, 2014.
3. Justine Walker, “Study on Humanitarian Impact of Syria-Related Unilateral Restrictive Measures: A report prepared for the United Nations Economic & Social Commission for Western Asia,” May 16, 2016.
4. UN Human Rights Council, October 3, 2014.
6. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commission.
7. “End of mission statement of the Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights to the Syrian Arab Republic, 13 to 17 May 2018,” United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commission, 17 May 2018, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=23094&LangID=E
8. John Mueller and Karl Mueller, “Sanctions of Mass Destruction,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 1999.
9. Domenico Losurdo, Class Struggle: A Political and Philosophical History. Palgrave MacMillan. 2016, p. 250.
10. Alfred B. Prados and Jeremy M. Sharp, “Syria: Political Conditions and Relations with the United States After the Iraq War,” Congressional Research Service, February 28, 2005.
11. Prados and Sharp.
12. Prados and Sharp.
13. Nada Bakri, “Sanctions pose growing threat to Syria’s Assad,” The New York Times, October 10, 2011.
14. Joby Warrick and Alice Fordham, “Syria running out of cash as sanctions take toll, but Assad avoids economic pain,” The Washington Post, April 24, 2012.
17. Special Rapporteur, May 17, 2018.
19. Special Rapporteur, May 17, 2018.
20. Special Rapporteur, May 17, 2018.
21. Special Rapporteur, May 17, 2018.
22. Special Rapporteur, May 17, 2018.
23. Special Rapporteur, May 17, 2018.
24. Special Rapporteur, May 17, 2018.
25. Special Rapporteur, May 17, 2018.
26. Patrick Cockburn, “U.S. and E.U. sanctions are ruining ordinary Syrians’ lives, yet Bashar al-Assad hangs on to power,” The Independent, October 7, 2016.
27. Graham Allison, “The myth of the liberal order,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2018.
29. UN Human Rights Council, October 3, 2014.
30. UN Human Rights Council, October 3, 2014.
31. Stephen Gowans. Washington’s Long War on Syria. Baraka Books. 2017. Chapter 4.
32. Patrick Cockburn, “It’s time we saw economic sanctions for what they really are—war crimes,” The Independent, January 19, 2018.
33. Domenico Losurdo, “The New Colonial Counter-Revolution,” Revista Opera, October 20, 2017.
34. Peter Navarro, “Trump’s tariffs are a defense against China’s aggression,” The Wall Street Journal, June 20, 2018.
35. Paraphrasing Ayatollah Khamenei. Original quote in William R. Polk, Understanding Iran: Everything You Need to Know, From Persia to the Islamic Republic, From Cyrus to Ahmadinejad (Palgrave MacMillan, 2009), 212.
36. Losurdo, October 20, 2017.