Time to end sanctions against Syria and restore economic stability

Whenever light appears at the end of the tunnel in the Syrian conflict, it escalates into new dimensions. The military war has now been replaced by an economic war on the Syrian people.

Akmaral Batalova

The objectives of reducing civilian casualties and military tensions by creating de-escalation zones and defeating terrorist groups were achieved during the Astana Process negotiations. However, the “Kurdish issue” and the terrorist enclave in Idlib remain unsolved, which demonstrate the conflicting political, economic and regional interests of all players in the Syrian crisis. At the same time, President Bashar al-Assad’s government is trying to convince the world that apart from these two issues, the war is over and foreign investments and tourists can return to Syria.

Before the crisis, the majority of the population lived in urban areas of western Syria, which contributed the most to the national economy. Many internally displaced people have fled there from territories occupied by terrorists during the war. These areas, mainly controlled by the government, which include Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Hama, are becoming an epicentre of economic activity where stability is slowly returning. However, these destroyed and overpopulated areas lack sufficient fuel and electricity, which causes disruptions in the main cities for more than eight hours per day. In some rural areas, electricity is not supplied for days. War refugees are increasingly returning to Syria, and demand for electricity is poised to double over the next five years.

In eastern Syria, 40 percent of the population worked in agriculture. Deir al-Zour, Hasaka and Raqqa provinces produced 57 present of the country’s cereals and 75 percent of its cotton in 2010, according to data from the Syrian Central Bureau of Statistics.

The eastern part contains 95 percent of the nation’s oil resources. Before the war, Syria produced 387,000 barrels of oil per day, of which 140,000 were exported. Proven reserves of natural gas stood at 9.1 trillion cubic feet and BP estimated that Syria produced approximately 800 million cubic feet (mmcf) per day in 2010, according to the Reuters news service.

Development of northern gas fields, which lie near the gas processing infrastructure and main power plants in the west of the country, is a key prerogative for Damascus.

According to Syria Gas Report produced by MEES (Middle East Economic Survey), Syrians consumed 45,181 GWh electricity in 2011 which fell to a mere 17,600 GWh in 2016. This rose to more than 20,000 in 2017 and was likely to exceed 25,000 GWh in 2018.

General Petroleum Company restored gas production in 2017-2018 to 580 mmcf/day, but Syria needs more to cope with winter colds, to recover its economy and electricity.

Foreign oil and gas companies benefited from pre-war Syria’s natural resources, but stayed silent while terrorists fought for oil fields, destroyed them and left killed civilians behind. Now they don’t dare ask for a waiver from U.S. and E.U. sanctions to supply oil and gas even for humanitarian relief but want to keep their stakes in Syrian energy projects.

The north of eastern Syria is controlled by the U.S. and its Kurdish allies and their current challenge is not the production of oil, but its transportation. Two refineries, a 1,400-kilometre oil pipeline and three export terminals remain under government control. According to the National Interest Magazine, “The solution can be found by sending oil to Turkey, which would make a profit from its refinement and export to Europe. A joint fund could be established and administered by the U.S., Turkey and representatives of the Jazira region.” This view describes the U.S. military presence in a sovereign state as though it was a hostile corporate takeover, not to mention that it can also lead to the further partitioning of Syria.

Today, official oil production remains as low as 15,000 barrels per day, while the true volumes of extraction may be well over 85,000 barrels per day, of which more than 80 percent is taken by smugglers. Traded with high discounts, the illegal black-market revenues will likely be spent on more weapons and fighters to be recruited in other countries, including in Central Asia and Europe. These funds could instead be used to help suffering people of Syria, to whom these natural resources belong.

The world needs to find political solution to the Syrian crisis, but for the moment to meet increasing demand of electricity and heating substantially and quickly is more important.

Through the existing Astana Process, Russia, Turkey and Iran in coordination with the Syrian government could establish a “supervised corridor” for the transparent export of Syrian oil instead of letting the black-market make a profit from it. Such initiative shall be seen as progressive by the international community.

As a journalist, I have met not only supporters of the current government during my visit to Syria but also its opponents in refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Greece. After eight years, many Syrians consider the crisis in their country not as a “revolution for democracy” but as a war of terror meant to eliminate their multicultural national identity by sectarian division, to destroy a secular state and bring to power high-profile members of the Muslim Brotherhood or the representatives of radical takfiric hardliners.

The destruction of Syria is beyond human understanding and acceptance. What makes the situation worse is the U.S. and E.U sanctions, which prevent the delivery of humanitarian aid and the return of the refugees. In fact, the sanctions may even be contributing to their increase.

All the players in Syria, including Security Council members, accuse each other of impeding the delivery of UN aid supplies.

“What is undisputed, however, is that sanctions do contribute to the suffering of the Syrian people contrary to their stated intentions,” the UN Special Rapporteur states.

UN estimates the costs of the reconstruction of Syria at $388 billion. The U.S. and the E.U. say they will not help while President Assad stays in power. Considering the Syrian government’s lack of finance and restricted access to their own natural resources, it is easy to predict more civilian deaths if unilateral sanctions will not be lifted. These sanctions are imposing an economic siege, which may be killing more people than starvation in the sieges during the war.

Instead of imposing more sanctions, targeting Syrian economy, collective confidence-building measures must be found by the international community to help the country to start healing its wounds.

Kazakhstan can also participate in the humanitarian missions by sending food, baby formulas and assist with clearing mines and restoring destroyed historic sites.

As the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states, the right to food, health, education, water, sanitation and to adequate housing must be provided without discrimination to all people, including Syrians.

They are the same people who have paid the ultimate price in this endless war with their lives and the lives of their loved ones, with their bodies emptied by organ harvesting mafia or drowned in the sea as they sought to reach a peaceful place, with their children kidnapped by human traffickers. Syrians have suffered unimaginably due to the hunger and loss of their homes and their country. It is time to end suffering of this people and restore peace and prosperity to Syria.

The author is an observer and a film producer.