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U.S. insists sanctions target Assad, not Syrian people

ROME – A week after the Vatican called on the international community to lift the sanctions imposed against Syria, an official from the United States Department of State argued that they target the “regime and criminal behavior” of Bashar al-Assad and not the people.

“Our sanctions do not target the Syrian people, they target the Assad regime and the criminal behavior that violates human rights,” said Richard Albright, Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, U.S. Department of State. “They are an important tool to press for accountability from the regime on its atrocious behavior, some of which amount to war crimes.”

The official added that the United States tries to guarantee “that our sanctions do not unnecessarily impede humanitarian access in Syria, and they remain targeted in ways that continue to progress towards political objectives.”

“I would note that there’s a huge deterioration of the economic situation in Syria, this is a certainty, there’s a great humanitarian need,” Albright said. “But we need to look at the reasons for that: The reasons for that derive from corruption from the government, economic policies, exacerbated by the crisis in Lebanon and also exacerbated by the COVID pandemic.”

Despite the challenges, he said, the Syrian government is making the choice of focusing its resources on military and security services, instead of deploying resources on addressing the needs of the Syrian people, and it’s because of this decision that “the crisis remains so bad and the situation continues to deteriorate.”

His comments came during a phone press briefing on the U.S. participation in the fifth Brussels Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region, which took place March 29-30. Also in the agenda for the call, that included Matthew Nims, Deputy Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (USAID), was the government’s funding for the humanitarian response inside Syria and for assistance to Syrian refugees and their host communities in neighboring countries.

Last week, the papal aid agency Caritas Internationalis and the Church in Syria appealed for urgent aid for Syrians, as the nation marked the 10th anniversary of its civil war.

“Caritas Internationalis joins the voice of the Church in Syria and calls on the international community and the European Union to immediately remove all unilateral sanctions, which only aggravate the humanitarian conditions of Syrians,” said Caritas Internationalis Secretary-General Aloysius John, on March 23.

Cardinal Mario Zenari, the papal representative in Syria, echoed John’s call, adding that even after 10 years of conflict, the peace process is deadlocked and the reconstruction and recovery of the nation have yet to begin.

He said even though the bombs and rockets have ceased in most of the country in recent months, the “terrible bomb of poverty has exploded,” forcing 90 percent of the population below the poverty line, the highest percentage in the world.

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The numbers of the Syrian conflict are dire: According to Caritas, some 12 million people have been displaced by the war: Six million of them are displaced within the country, 5 million are refugees in neighboring countries, and one million has fled the region altogether.

According to Nims, the United States has provided humanitarian aid to more than five million Syrians in recent years, both those who’ve remain and those living as refugees.

However, he said guaranteeing the aid reaches those who needed it most within the country has become increasingly more complicated. For this reason, both government officials reiterated the appeal made by the Biden administration during the Brussels conference for the U.N to reauthorize the opening of the closed border crossings at al-Yaroubiya (bordering Iraq) and Bab al-Salam (bordering Turkey), while keeping open Bab al-Hawa (bordering Turkey), currently the only UN-authorized humanitarian border crossing into Syria.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had argued on Monday at the U.N Security Council that it’s “clear” that the needs of Syrians won’t be met by the Assad regime.

“We must ensure Syrians get the aid they need,” he said, adding: “The most efficient method is through border crossings … There is no good reason [why] crossings remain closed today.”

During Tuesday’s call, Nims argued that the closing of the crossings in 2020 has made it more difficult to guarantee that humanitarian aid reaches everyone who needs it within Syria, particularly in the Northwestern region, where the fighting is still sporadically ongoing. For this reason, he said, the U.S. will continue to advocate for reestablishing the crossings to provide essential aid.

During the Brussels conference, both China and Russia supported keeping those crossings closed, arguing aid can be channeled through the Assad regime.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma


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