During his recent four-day visit to China, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was greeted by jubilant music, rows of performers and a promise to help Syria rebuild.
As National Public Radio correspondent Aya Batrawy put it on September 23, Assad’s welcome in China marked the “rehabilitation” of a man who had been a “global pariah” since crushing a “popular uprising against his government with bombs and the full force of his military and security apparatus.”
That war, she said, “killed hundreds of thousands of people,” and millions of Syrians remain displaced.
Assad’s visit also marked the emergence of a “strategic partnership” between the two countries, sending a message to the West about China’s growing influence in the Middle East.
But for that partnership to fully bloom, Beijing needs the West to ease the diplomatic and economic sanctions that were imposed against the Syrian regime after it was accused of war crimes.
Thus, in expressing support for Syria during his meeting with Assad, Chinese President Xi Jinping directly addressed the issue, claiming that Western sanctions are “illegal.”
“China… urges relevant countries to immediately lift all illegal unilateral sanctions against Syria.”
That is misleading.
United Nations sanctions are internationally recognized and binding, while sanctions imposed by an individual country are unilateral. Sanctions imposed by an individual country are legal according to that country’s laws but not legally binding for others.
Thus, the sanctions imposed by the United States, European Union, Australia and Switzerland against Assad and his regime are unilateral, meaning other nations can choose whether to abide by them. Some nations, including Iran, Russia and China, continued to do business in Syria despite the sanctions.
Xi used that loophole in terminology to mislead on the legality of the sanctions against Syria.
He also ignored the Syrian government’s crimes and failed to say why sanctions were imposed against the Assad regime in the first place.
Pro-democracy protests erupted across Syria in March 2011, with citizens demanding an end to the Assad regime’s authoritarian practices. The protests quickly turned into a civil war between the Syrian regime, backed by Russia and Iran, and anti-government rebel groups backed by the United States, its global allies and regional countries, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
By August 2012, U.N. investigators accused all sides in Syria’s civil war of war crimes but said “a greater number” and “bigger variety” of the war crimes had been committed “from the government side.”
These included “unlawful killing, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, sexual violence, indiscriminate attack, pillaging and destruction of property,” U.N. investigators said.
They said Syrian government forces and the pro-government Shabiha militia had raped men, women and children in acts that could be prosecuted as crimes against humanity.
The Syrian regime has been accused of using chemical weapons hundreds of times over the course of the conflict, and it was internationally condemned for that in 2013, 2017 and 2018.
A study by the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute concluded that as of 2019, 98% of the chemical attacks in Syria’s civil war were carried out by Assad’s regime. These included dropping chlorine gas, sarin and sulfur mustard gas on Syrian civilians.
In March 2017, the U.N. Security Council drafted a resolution to impose sanctions on Syria over the use of chemical weapons. Russia and China vetoed it.
Moreover, a decade of civil war also turned the war-torn country into a narco-state. A New York Times investigation published in December 2021 concluded that the drug trade had become a multibillion-dollar operation with alleged ties to the Syrian military and relatives of Assad.
The United States, European Union, Canada, Australia and Switzerland have imposed economic sanctions on the Assad regime since the start of Syria’s civil war, aimed at preventing the regime from using violence against Syrian citizens.
In 2019, the United States passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which involves secondary sanctions targeting any global entities conducting business with the Syrian government, its military and intelligence agencies. The act was named after an anonymous Syrian military photographer who had defected with 53,000 pictures of victims of torture taken inside government prisons.
The Rand Corporation, a global policy think tank, wrote in 2021: “Despite its limited application, the Caesar Act has had significant influence on the Syrian debacle and Assad's ability to claim complete victory for two reasons — the ability of the United States to target entities globally and the fact that the sanctions are mandated by law.”
The U.S. sanctions exempt humanitarian aid, medical assistance and supplies, food and daily necessities.
Yet the sanctions came into question in February after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake rocked southeast Turkey near the Syrian border and the last Syrian opposition stronghold, exacerbating the ongoing war’s effects.
On February 10, the U.S. announced a 180-day exemption to its sanctions on Syria for “all transactions related to earthquake relief efforts.” The Assad regime, however, insisted that all aid had to go through his government before being distributed to affected regions.