Washington Wednesday – Syria sanctions stymie aid groups

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 5th of August, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up: Washington Wednesday.

The Syrian civil war is now in its 10th year. The country is still led by embattled President Bashar al-Assad. His military forces have clawed back areas of the country previously claimed by rebel factions. Assad now controls about 70 percent of the country. 

And he’s used brutal tactics to do it. U.S. policy under both Presidents Obama and Trump has called for Assad’s removal. Last week the State Department announced a new round of sanctions.

BROWN: In a statement Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said—quote—“The Assad regime’s military has become a symbol of brutality, repression, and corruption. They have killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, detained and tortured peaceful protesters,  and destroyed schools, hospitals, and markets without regard to human life. ”

Here now to discuss this latest action with us is Mindy Belz. She is WORLD’s senior editor and author of the 2016 book They Say We Are Infidels: On the run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East

Mindy, good morning.

MINDY BELZ, SENIOR EDITOR: Good morning, Myrna.

BROWN: Mindy, before we dive into Syria, what’s your reaction to the deadly explosion in neighboring Lebanon yesterday? 

BELZ: Well, it’s devastating. Besides the harbor issue where the explosion took place, the bomb blast destroyed neighborhoods, and really, I’m hearing, every house and building in the city Beirut is suffering damage. That includes a neighborhood that’s very close to the port that includes some of the largest evangelical churches in Beirut. Most of them have been damaged to some extent. Some may have been destroyed. 

But the good news out of that is that we’ve heard that there, at this point, has been no reported loss of life or injury from those churches. The attack happened in the evening when people had gone home and that is something of a blessing in this horrible situation. 

BROWN: OK, on to Syria, the subject of your recent reporting. And I’d like to start with a quick refresher: Remind us why this country is strategically important to the United States. 

BELZ: Sure. Syria has been fighting a nine-year civil war that has come to encompass the entire Middle East that has given us the rise of ISIS, which has killed Americans, which has threatened our security, and resulted in the growing threat of terrorism. That threat has diminished since the last remnant of ISIS was “defeated” early in 2019. But we know that ISIS is still there and some of the ideology that’s driving it are still there. 

And so it continues to be an area that the United States has a lot of concern for. Half the country’s been emptied. That means 6 million people have been left homeless. They are either displaced inside Syria or they are refugees outside of Syria. And that’s a huge concern for the church and a huge opportunity as well. 

BROWN: Now, the State Department announced new Syria sanctions in June and again last week, but these were authorized by Congress. What were lawmakers trying to accomplish with these?  

BELZ: This was the latest round of sanctions. The United States has sanctioned the regime of President Bashar al-Assad multiple times. But these were different. They were more targeted, I would say, in that they allowed the U.S. government to restrict the economic activity of members of Bashar al-Assad’s family, which has already happened, and to sanction businesses that are doing business with the Assad regime in Syria. 

And those things we’ve seen take effect—one set of sanctions in June and another in July. They also can target the central bank in Syria if they can prove that it is involved in money laundering. These are the kinds of things that have fueled the illicit activity of the Assad regime for decades and these are new tools, you might say, for trying to put a stop to that. 

BROWN: Do the sanctions seem to be working? 

BELZ: Well, that’s a hard question because, as I mentioned, it’s been a nine-year war and Assad is still in power. And, in fact, he has gone from being somewhat beaten down at a halfway point in the war to fighting back to reacquiring areas that have been taken from the government. The Assad regime now controls 70 percent of the country again and I must say, from traveling there, that those are some of the more stable parts of the country. And so you might say that the pendulum has swung back in Assad’s direction. 

Another thing that makes this difficult is that the Christians in Syria who have been so beaten down by these militant groups like ISIS and the al-Qaeda groups that are all fighting the Assad regime—they have forced Christians out of the areas that they control. And so the Christians live under the Assad regime for the most part and so that makes this a really difficult issue to solve. The sanctions that we want to hurt the Assad regime will also hurt the Christian minority in Syria. 

BROWN: I know so far Syria has reported very low coronavirus numbers, but with half of the country’s hospitals destroyed, testing is sparse. What did you learn about how the pandemic is affecting the country? 

BELZ: That’s right, Myrna, the country has a decimated healthcare system and what I’ve been hearing, I’ve been interviewing doctors, aid groups that are running medical clinics in all parts of Syria for many weeks now, they’ve all been reporting seeing hundreds of patients exhibiting the symptoms of COVID-19 and that’s been for a long time. 

And on the one hand it’s significant that in a country that’s at war and that is as devastated as Syria is, that they’re actually reporting any numbers at all. But on the other hand, the numbers they’re reporting are so far below what everyone believes is accurate that they’re not really helpful. And that makes planning and it makes delivering supplies, delivering test kits, delivering medicine to treat these patients very, very difficult in the absence of adequate information. 

BROWN: What are the U.S. policy options from here? 

BELZ: Well, I think that going back to the sanctions—the sanctions have exemptions for humanitarian aid. And so if aid groups can be sort of walked through the paces of how they can help in Syria without running afoul of U.S. sanctions, they can still do a lot of good there. There’s so much need that any amount of aid is going to be helpful. 

And I’m really impressed in the conversations I’ve been having and the pictures that I’m seeing as people are sending me pictures of their clinics and their quarantine centers, the things that are happening really from some really key church-based NGOs that it’s possible to do a lot of good in this situation. This terrible place that we find ourselves in 2020 with a pandemic, with war, with bombs and explosions is also a wonderful opportunity for service, a wonderful place for people with means to step in and help and heal. 

BROWN: Mindy Belz is WORLD’s senior editor. Look for her story on Syria in the next issue of our sister publication WORLD Magazine. 

Mindy, thank you for your reporting on this. 

BELZ: Thanks, Myrna.

(AP Photo/Ariel Schalit) An Israeli soldier drives a tank during an exercise in the Israeli controlled Golan Heights near the border with Syria, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020.

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