In 2014, a Syrian photographer known by the pseudonym Caesar escaped to the West, bringing with him some 55,000 images bearing witness to the Assad regime’s brutal and sadistic treatment of its political opponents. Last year, thanks largely to Caesar’s testimony, Congress enacted sanctions on the Syrian government which went into effect this week. Opponents of these sanctions argue that they will inflict as much pain on Syria’s long-suffering civilians as on its rulers. Nonsense, write David Adesnik and Toby Dershowitz:
[E]xtensive U.S. and European efforts to relieve the suffering of Syrian civilians belie such accusations of cruel indifference. For the duration of the war, they have paired their sanctions with billions of dollars of humanitarian aid every year, which is delivered mainly by the United Nations and its partner nongovernmental organizations.
To mitigate the suffering that persists despite historic levels of aid, what Syria needs is not fewer sanctions but a root-and-branch reform of the UN machinery for delivering aid, which Bashar al-Assad has coopted to the point where UN agencies have become de-facto adjuncts to the siege of civilian populations and other war crimes. Lengthy reports from human-rights advocates, along with a disturbing internal review by UN staff, have documented the UN’s departure from the core humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence.
For years, the UN has let the Assad regime give direct aid to supportive populations while systematically blocking deliveries to areas outside of its control. Besieging civilian populations is a war crime, yet convoys en route to deliveries in regime-held areas would pass through besieged neighborhoods without aiding their inhabitants. [Another problem is] the World Health Organization’s deference to the regime, which included parroting the Syrian Ministry of Health’s denials of a polio outbreak despite evidence the disease had begun to spread.
Caesar [himself has argued] that sanctions are not about seeking retribution for the crimes of the past but denying Assad the resources to perpetrate new ones. . . . While sanctions alone are not a strategy, they are an integral element of any plausible approach to putting constant pressure on Assad.