From the U.S. to Syria, a Doctor Smuggles Lifesaving Equipment
ANAS ALKHARBOUTLI/PICTURE-ALLIANCE/DPA/AP IMAGES
A doctor in Idlib, Syria, in June
He bought it in the United States, shipped it to a friend through Europe and into Lebanon, and found a way to smuggle it by road into Syria. But this was a piece of contraband only made illegal by the United States’ cruel policy of sanctions toward Syria—a critical part needed to fix a broken CT scanner, the sole machine in a city of over 100,000 people in Syria.
Last year, Dr. Farid, a Syrian physician based in the United States, opened a large medical and cancer center in Syria. (He asked that neither his real name nor the name of his city be used for safety reasons.)
“My sister died of cancer when I was a kid, so I decided to be a doctor,” he told me. “I wanted to give something back to the people back home—something to really be proud of and to help the people.” He had spent $100,000 to get a CT scanner into the health center, but it was unusable due to that part being broken. And because of international sanctions, he could not legally import a new one.
One of the reasons why the scanner was so necessary in Syria is that the country’s health sector has been decimated by years of conflict. Since the war started in 2011, between 40 percent and half of all hospitals in Syria have either closed or been destroyed, and many doctors have fled the country. Now, in the midst of the pandemic, the U.S. has imposed a new round of economic sanctions ostensibly to punish a brutal regime that has abandoned its own citizens. Instead, the sanctions are causing more suffering for those very citizens—making it harder for Dr. Farid’s clinic to treat patients.
Dr. Farid invested his life savings into his medical clinic. Now he watches from afar as his country suffers from a public-health crisis within a nearly decade-long war.
That is not how it is supposed to work. In theory, even broad-based sanctions like those imposed on Syria include humanitarian exceptions for sectors such as public health. But, as Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, explained, “These sanctions are so sweeping, that you have no way to know what’s going to be sanctioned.” Out of fear of being punished, companies don’t only comply. They over-comply.
The situation has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. As of mid-September, the Syrian government says there have been just over 3,000 COVID cases and only 140 deaths, but health workers say that these numbers are a huge underestimate. In reality, Syria is facing disaster upon disaster: Hospitals are overcrowded, the death toll is rising, and both health workers and those who are concerned that they may have contracted the virus are reluctant to reveal the truth for fear of retaliation from the government. The World Health Organization has shipped some supplies to handle the coronavirus into Syrian hospitals, but because the WHO’s support is based on official figures, the tools are far from what is needed.
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The Assad regime, which has ruled Syria for nearly 50 years, has been violently repressing its people since 2011 through chemical weapons attacks, barrel bombings, and the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas. Bashar Al-Assad apparently has no interest in addressing the pandemic. Instead, the regime has seriously downplayed its scale. Years of corruption and internal conflict has left the Syrian economy in shambles, even before the latest rounds of U.S. sanctions were implemented. But when they were enacted in June, it became even more difficult for physicians like Dr. Farid to serve the neediest patients in his hometown.
Sanctions have long been a tool of American foreign policy, but under the Trump administration and Secretary of State Mike Pomepeo, punitive measures have become a tool of first resort. Trump’s first three years in office have been the years with the most new additions to the Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctions list since at least 2001, according to a recent study. “The Trump administration has been so eager to use sanctions as a strategy rather than as a tool,” says Kate Kizer, policy director at the Washington, D.C.–based advocacy group Win Without War.
Sanctions, it might be said, only intensify existing economic anguish and inequality.
The U.S. sanctions were purportedly designed to change the regime’s behavior. But considering that for years Bashar Al-Assad has been unwilling to modify his government’s actions or take any meaningful steps toward a democratic transition even when under existential military pressure, there are doubts that new sanctions passed in December 2019 and implemented in June will force his hand.
Sanctions, it might be said, only intensify existing economic anguish and inequality. “People say sanctions are a more humane option for lawmakers to achieve foreign-policy objectives,” says Hassan El-Tayyab of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, “but the reality is sanctions are killing innocent people every day and should be considered an act of warfare.” Alongside the humanitarian argument, Kizer adds that punitive economic measures are politically ineffective and often represent the first step on the path to military action.
Progressives do not necessarily oppose all sanctions. Both Kizer and El-Tayyab told me that more-targeted sanctions can be effective in changing behaviors. It is when, as Kizer explains, “the purpose is to collapse the economy, as Trump has said is the goal in Iran and Venezuela,” or when sanctions are so broad that they hamper the ability to import basic medical supplies or to adequately handle a pandemic, that progressives are determined to aggressively challenge their use.
Dr. Farid invested his life savings into his medical clinic. Now he watches from afar as his country suffers from a public-health crisis within a nearly decade-long war, and sees the impact on people all over Syria, including his friends and family. He hears daily reports of people who cannot buy food, and of former teachers and engineers who are looking for temporary work as handymen to pay for medical supplies, masks, or hand sanitizer. As a result, his clinic provides free or low-cost care to residents. “The U.S. government says the sanctions are about the regime. Really?” Dr. Farid asks. “The regime doesn’t have any problems. Who pays the price? The people.”