Syria has been suffering for 12 years, plagued by civil war, jihadist violence, foreign occupation, and autocratic governance. Yet widening US economic sanctions have made it increasingly harder to help—until now.
A February waiver offers a 180-day window for earthquake relief.
“If God has put it on your heart to give to Syria, be generous,” said Nabil Costa, executive director of the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development (LSESD), also known as the Baptist Society. “Find trusted organizations, because it is not easy to get it to the right place.”
On March 10, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) joined the World Council of Churches (WCC) and Catholic charity Caritas to detail the “chilling effect” sanctions have on the ability of faith-based and other NGOs to transfer money and goods to struggling Syrians. Most banks have deemed such transactions too risky to facilitate.
Therefore, unlike in neighboring Turkey, the February 6 earthquake was not followed by an immediate outpouring of international aid. Despite a death toll of 6,000 and an estimated 500,000 more displaced amid the rubble, United States and European Union policy—and distrust of the Bashar al-Assad government—prevented most nations and international humanitarian organizations from rushing to the scene.
A false step could result in a $1 million fine and 20 years in prison.
US sanctions against Syria began in 1979 with a declaration that it was a state sponsor of terrorism, and tightened in 2004 for its undermining of the war in Iraq. In 2011, Syria’s repression of civil protest resulted in additional sanctions, subsequently strengthened throughout its civil war—especially after the use of chemical weapons in 2017.
Two years later, after a whistleblower smuggled out alleged evidence of the torture of civilians, the Caesar Act implemented secondary sanctions against anyone conducting business with the Syrian government.
Legislation permitted humanitarian exemptions for food and medicine, and in 2022 allowance was made for unfettered aid into regions outside of government control. Turkey and various rebel entities occupy territory in northwest Syria, while a US military base supports Kurdish forces administering large swaths of the northeast.
The United Nations designated a number of humanitarian aid corridors from Turkey, but Russia and China vetoed all but one—in protest of their ally’s dwindling sovereignty. Iran and Hezbollah have also backed Assad militarily, while Israel occupies the Golan Heights and regularly bombs the alleged transport of weapons near its frontier and before crossing into Lebanon.
Amid it all, Syria’s Christians help who they can.
Following the earthquake, Aleppo’s churches hosted hundreds of frantic neighbors fleeing their cracked and crumbling homes. But the WEA report, written prior to the tragedy, outlined how many faith-based organizations lacked the resources and legal expertise necessary to navigate the myriad regulations to apply for permitted exemptions. Costa said LSESD did not attempt it, relying instead on “existing channels” to get aid into Syria.
“Everything we do is transparent,” he said, “but not everything is advertised.”
Even large NGOs like Caritas have struggled. “It should be like math, one plus one equals two,” said Karam Abi Yazbeck, Caritas’s regional coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa. “But I can’t make sense of…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today on April 3, 2023. Please click here to read the full text.