The Cruelty of Sanctions

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

The Los Angeles Times reports on the harm that sanctions on Syria do to civilians there:

The result, said Damascus-based businessman Naji Adeeb, is that legitimate business owners are being punished while close associates of the state, including those named in the sanctions, are still able to conduct deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

“You just need a lot more resources to do a lot less, and if you do a transaction today you don’t know if you can do it again a month from now,” said Adeeb. “It’s an environment where only crooks and mafiosis can work.”

Much like the sanctions reimposed on Iran earlier this year, U.S. and other international sanctions on Syria are supposed to have exemptions for humanitarian goods. In practice, however, private firms don’t want to take the risk of running afoul of sanctions by mistake and choose instead to avoid doing any business related to Syria:

But the problem, explained Salah Ismail, the doctor in charge of Mujtahed’s emergency care section, is that foreign suppliers often don’t dare send anything to Syria for fear of triggering unexpected violations – a real possibility.

Even “targeted” sanctions have proven to be far too indiscriminate. It should not surprise us that it isn’t possible to wage economic war on a government without adversely affecting the civilian population. In the end, it is always the broader population rather than the regime and its cronies that suffers the most hardship.

One effect is to deprive people of medicine and medical equipment essential to their treatment:

Before the war, Syria could turn to pharmaceutical factories in Aleppo and near Damascus to fill 90% of its medicine needs, according to the U.N. But for businessmen to rebuild their smashed factories, they need to import machines and replacement parts, not to mention raw materials from reputable sources to produce medicine.

All have been ensnared in the red tape of the sanctions.

Even if everything looks aboveboard, said Ziad Oubari, an Aleppo-based pharmaceutical manufacturer, suppliers often no longer allow merchants to order goods and pay for them 90 or 120 days later. Now they want all the money in advance, and even then banks often refuse to carry out the transfer.

Sanctions regimes consistently harm the weakest and most vulnerable, and they inevitably have a deleterious effect on the entire economy. In Iran, the reimposed sanctions have exacerbated economic problems and imposed severe burdens on many Iranians, including many who were formerly middle class. The New York Times reports:

Not all have suffered as much as the Taymouris, whose business was so vulnerable to the currency collapse. But Abbas Torkan, a former adviser to Mr. Rouhani, said recently that the middle class had shrunk by 50 percent.

Iran sanctions are working to destroy that country’s middle class, who have been among the most likely to favor political and social reform and engagement with the West. Sanctions don’t just strangle the economy, but they also work to stifle political opposition and punish the people who support the regime least. Sanctions inflict misery, and that is what they are designed to do.

When policymakers impose sanctions, they are electing to take away medicine from the sick and to deprive legitimate business owners and workers of their wealth and employment. Imposing sanctions is a cruel tactic, and worse than that it is typically a useless one. The people that might deserve the punishment sanctions inflict rarely suffer, and those that have done nothing wrong are made to pay the price for the sins of a government they can’t control.

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at The American Conservative, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and is a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Dallas. Follow him on Twitter. This article is reprinted from The American Conservative with permission.

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