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Lift sanctions on Syria, senior church figures urge

28 January 2021

Letters to PM and Biden criticise effect on civilians rather than the aim of the measures

PA

Tents covered with snow are seen at a camp for internally displaced Syrians in northern Aleppo countryside, last week

Tents covered with snow are seen at a camp for internally displaced Syrians in northern Aleppo countryside, last week

SENIOR church figures from the UK and around the world have called for the immediate lifting of sanctions on Syria on humanitarian grounds. They joined a group of up to 100 prominent individuals last week — including politicians, diplomats, and academics — in signing letters to President Biden and Boris Johnson.

The signatories reminded Mr Johnson that, a decade ago, “Syria was a breadbasket for the region. Today it is on the verge not just of hunger, but starvation, according to the World Food Programme. . . Millions of hard-pressed Syrians will go to bed hungry and cold tonight.”

The letter went on to say that the UK had steadily broadened its own sanctions regime and co-operated with US measures. After leaving the European Union, the UK, “rather than taking the opportunity to change a failed policy, chose to realign itself with EU sanctions on Syria. We believe that the national interests of the United Kingdom can be pursued without using sanctions to collectively punish the Syrian people.”

The stated purpose of the EU sanctions is to encourage the Syrian government to “refrain from actions, policies or activities which repress the civilian population in Syria” and to participate “in good faith to reach a negotiated political settlement” leading to a peaceful solution to the conflict. The letters make no reference to these aims, focussing instead on the impact of sanctions on Syria’s economy and civilian population. Removing sanctions would imply a major change of policy towards the Syrian government on the part of Western nations.

Among the signatories to the letters are two former Archbishops of Canterbury, Lord Williams, and Lord Carey, as well as two retired bishops, Dr Michael Langrish and Dr Michael Nazir-Ali.

The current Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, also signed the letters. “Lifting sanctions,” he said on Monday, “would give greater access to life-saving supplies and equipment, now more vital than ever as Syria fights the coronavirus. It would help reverse the current devaluation of Syrian currency that has led to prices for basic foodstuffs and other necessities skyrocketing and wages falling, and it would lift some of the bars to essential reconstruction of areas damaged by bombing.”

Even as fighting continues and Syrians remain divided, Dr Cocksworth believes that there is still scope for outside help that would be more readily available if sanctions were lifted. “There’s good evidence,” he continued, “that programmes embedded in local areas in a targeted way, working with reputable Syrian organisations, can be beneficial.” He referred to the charity the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, working alongside St Ephrem Patriarchal Development Committee, to empower women returning to war-torn areas to preserve fruit and vegetables to feed their families, and to sell.

In Syria as a whole, the urgent need for humanitarian assistance was spelt out by the UN special envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen. He told the Security Council that “millions of Syrians inside the country and millions of refugees outside are grappling with deep trauma, grinding poverty, personal insecurity, and lack of hope for the future.” Syrians were experiencing a “slow tsunami”.

While some areas of Syria are now relatively calm, civilians can still be caught in the crossfire in conflict zones, or become victims of improvised explosive devices. UNICEF said that, since the start of this year, at least 48 children had been killed, while 4.8 million were in need of humanitarian assistance and protection.

Against this background of despair, UN-sponsored talks involving representatives of the Syrian government, opposition, and civil society resumed in Geneva on Monday. The focus is on a new constitution. Mr Pedersen said before the meeting that “there needs to be more urgency in the process.” But whether this round of talks will be more fruitful than previous ones remains to be seen.

For the world at large, preoccupied with the battle against the Covid pandemic, Syria might seem like a hopeless cause. But, Dr Cocksworth says, “we can persist in prayer for deep and lasting peace in Syria. We can send messages of support to the Church in Syria in all its forms so that Syrian Christians know that they are not forgotten, and know that we are with them in spirit as they seek to be Christ’s ambassadors for peace and reconciliation.”

Border-crossing plea. An international group of 22 NGOS, among them Christian Aid, World Vision, and CARE, have said that the decision by the UN Security Council to close a critical crossing point for humanitarian aid between Turkey and Syria has jeopardised the lives of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, writes Hattie Williams.

In a joint statement published on Thursday morning, the NGOs warn that sub-zero temperatures, floods, and soaring food prices — combined with rising cases of Covid-19 and ongoing aid shortages — have rapidly increased humanitarian need across northern Syria at a time when access for humanitarian aid to the area has been severely constrained. 

Six months on from the first Covid case in the country, there are more than 20,700 cases in north-west Syria, and more than 8000 in the north-east, they write. “These numbers are thought to be a vast underestimate due to extremely limited case detection and testing capacity across the country, particularly in the north-east.” 

The signatories, which also include Oxfam, Save the Children, and the Norwegian Refugee Council, continue: “With a healthcare infrastructure decimated by ten years of conflict, the pandemic is threatening to turn an already dire humanitarian situation into a catastrophe, as families in Northern Syria face stark choices to survive. Many cannot afford to feed their families, let alone buy a mask to protect themselves and others.” 

Only one cross-border channel remains open, and is therefore under “immense pressure. . . Violence and insecurity have previously forced the crossing to close, and ongoing conflict risks delaying the delivery of aid to vulnerable populations.” 

The NGOs urge the UN Security Council to rethink when the decision comes up for review in six months’ time. “UN cross-border humanitarian access to North West Syria must be assured now and in the future, and the Security Council must urgently address ongoing access challenges across the country.”

Flood damage. Heavy rains and floods have worsened the plight of internally displaced people (IDP), destroying tents, food, and belongings, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported on Wednesday. 

At least 196 IDP sites in Idlib and Aleppo sustained damage, and many roads leading to camps were cut off by rains between 14 and 20 January, the OCHA said. More than 67,600 people had been affected, and more than 10,000 tents destroyed or damaged.

The perilous situation for displaced people has also been exacerbated by the risk of fire breaking out in camps, which are ill-equipped and hazardous, owing to a scarcity of safe fuels, as a result of the general economic deterioration in north-west Syria.

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