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Life in Syria under U.S. sanctions

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Now a rare look at the hard life in Syria. The recent earthquakes that displaced tens of thousands of people there are just the latest calamity. They follow 12 years of civil war and the government's lethal response and the hardships of a policy that is increasingly being questioned, economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and European allies. NPR's Aya Batrawy went to part of the country that's under government control to see how it all adds up.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: I flew into Latakia a few weeks after February's earthquakes aboard a humanitarian aid flight from the United Arab Emirates. Ten people who were severely injured in the earthquakes are carried on to this cavernous cargo plane that's equipped with medical beds and ventilators. They're airlifted back to Abu Dhabi because Syria can't provide them with the treatment they need.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIRENS RINGING)

BATRAWY: The UAE even sent Syria new ambulances, another need laid bare by the earthquakes. So why is Syria's health care system in such dire need of help? The answer depends on who you ask.

HAWAZEN MAKHLOUF: (Through interpreter) It's gotten really hard for us under U.S. sanctions. We've depleted a large amount of our stockpile of medicine. And in some cases, we can't fix or upgrade our medical equipment. And this was really clear after the earthquakes, we didn't have what we needed to deal with this disaster.

BATRAWY: That's Dr. Hawazen Makhlouf, a senior physician at one of the hospitals here in Latakia.

MAKHLOUF: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: He says hospitals are lacking MRI machines, CAT scans, heart monitors and even anesthesia and cancer medications. Oil and banking sanctions were toughened over the past decade to punish President Bashar al-Assad's government as it attacked rebels, bombed civilians and jailed tens of thousands. The U.S. says its sanctions target Assad's regime and not humanitarian assistance. But doctors in Syria say they have trouble importing basic supplies because foreign banks fear financial penalties.

MOHAMMED QUSAY AL-KHALIL: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: Dr. Mohammed Qusay al-Khalil is the director of Jebleh's main public hospital just south of Latakia.

(Speaking Arabic).

AL-KHALIL: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: We're in the emergency room. He points toward two ventilators covered in plastic - they don't work, and the hospital can't buy new ones. Like many in this part of Syria, he's a loyal supporter of President Bashar al-Assad, whose photo hangs on every floor of this hospital. Dr. Al-Khalil blames U.S. sanctions for the shortages and constant electricity cuts.

AL-KHALIL: (Through interpreter) Syrians deserve a life of dignity and the best health care. How can they be punished like this?

BATRAWY: Outside the main lobby are photos of 14 nurses and medical staff killed here in 2016, when Islamic State suicide bombers targeted the city and this hospital as it was tending to the wounded. I come across two elevators that were damaged in the attack.

And since then, they haven't even been able to get the Italian parts to fix the elevators. So there's only one functioning elevator in this hospital, and when that one doesn't work or it needs maintenance, they literally have to carry patients up the stairs.

AL-KHALIL: Here, the X-ray department.

BATRAWY: We take the stairs, and he shows me two X-ray machines. Only one of them works at this hospital that serves a million people in the area. In the prenatal ward, a newborn baby boy named Hamza is breathing with the help of a tiny oxygen mask.

(SOUNDBITE OF OXYGEN MACHINE DRONING)

BATRAWY: The metal cribs here are covered in deep orange rust.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Crying).

BATRAWY: But it's not just hospitals struggling to cope from years of war. The head of Syria's civil defense says his teams didn't have enough equipment to save lives after the earthquakes. Major General Safwan Bahloul says they were in need of basic tools like jackhammers and hydraulic lifts.

SAFWAN BAHLOUL: Sanctions should be lift. I don't think we could do any harm to the world if we do maintenance to our rescue gear or our lorries or our cars.

BATRAWY: The World Bank estimates the quakes caused over $5 billion in damage in Syria. Bahloul says 10,000 homes were destroyed, including his own in government-controlled areas.

BAHLOUL: People here in Syria, they need a lot of help. We need a lot of food. We need a lot of fuel. We need support.

BATRAWY: After the earthquakes, the U.S. eased sanctions for six months. In a written statement, the State Department said this was intended to make clear that anyone can provide emergency aid to Syria without the risk of sanctions. The U.S. has said sanctions, which the European Union also imposes, are supposed to prevent other countries from supporting Assad's government. But things are changing. Arab countries that once backed the rebels are rebuilding ties with Syria after the earthquakes and as their hopes of ousting Assad fade. This has raised questions about current U.S. policy in Syria and whether sanctions are the answer.

HOWARD SHATZ: So there's no question that the sanctions are limiting the freedom of action of the Assad government and its ability to make war on the Syrian people. There's also no question that the sanctions are hurting the Syrian people.

BATRAWY: Howard Shatz is a senior economist at the RAND Corporation who's written about sanctions. He says the U.S. is faced with a tough choice.

SHATZ: Is it more important to limit the freedom of action of the Assad government and its ability to attack, to make war on the Syrian people, or is it more important to give the Assad government more freedom of action and alleviate the problems faced by the Syrian people? That's the big choice.

BATRAWY: Former U.S. officials, Syrian activists and experts recently called for an overhaul of U.S. policy in Syria. Among them is Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, who heads policy at the Syrian American Council, a D.C.-based advocacy group. He accuses the Syrian government of siphoning off earthquake aid and blames Syria's suffering squarely on the Assad regime. He says that in the absence of stronger military support for rebels, sanctions remain one of the few options the U.S. has been willing to use.

MOHAMMED ALAA GHANEM: It's the only tool in the toolbox that the United States and Europe are willing to use towards accountability in Syria. Now, if you take away that tool, the toolbox is empty. There are no tools left.

BATRAWY: He asks, without sanctions, what's left? That's the question Washington now faces, even as the Biden administration insists on political change in Syria. Aya Batrawy, NPR News, Latakia, Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.