Sanctions on Syria: Australia’s Complicity in Policide

In 1998, the United Nation’s humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Denis Halliday, resigned in protest against UN Security Council sanctions on Iraq, using the term ‘genocide’ when he explained reasons for his resignation.

Before Halliday’s resignation, the US ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright had been asked if she thought the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children from US sanctions were worth it. She replied: ”I think that is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, the price is worth it.”

Australia’s strategic allies in the UNSC – America and Britain – had voted for the sanctions on Iraq, while Russia, France and China abstained: no country used its veto power to oppose them, so they became law.

People walk past damaged buildings at the Yarmouk refugee camp on the southern outskirts of Damascus © Reuters

Sanctions on Syria are quite a different matter. They are ’unilateral coercive sanctions’ imposed by individual countries, including Australia. It means, basically, that we contribute to any suffering in Syria that results from the imposition of sanctions.

In a 2021 interview, Denis Halliday explained: “We kill people with sanctions. Sanctions are not a substitute for war—they are a form of warfare.”

If we accept this as a truth, then Australia has been involved in a war on Syria and its people since 2011 when Julia Gillard’s government imposed sanctions on Syria. According to DFAT: ‘Australia has imposed sanctions in relation to Syria to reflect Australia’s grave concern at the Syrian regime’s deeply disturbing and unacceptable use of violence against its people’.

But what do we know about the truth of events in Syria?

We have come to accept lies were told to enable a war on Iraq. For those of us who are aware of US and UK interference in Syrian affairs over decades, we can safely assume lies have been told to enable the war on Syria.

Today, for a broader understanding of the war in Syria one must seek independent analysis provided by outlets such as Grayzone or The Cradle.

In a Cradle article titled ‘The role of UK intelligence services in the abduction, murder of James Foley,’ we learn that in 2009, former French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas was told by top UK officials that “Britain was organizing an invasion of rebels into Syria”.

Developing a more sophisticated and objective understanding of the war in Syria becomes even more vital as evidence mounts of the dire suffering Syrians are enduring due to sanctions.

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) empowered a ’Special Rapporteur’, Prof. Dr. Alena Douhan, to investigate the impact of sanctions on the basic human rights of people in Syria. Her Preliminary Findings were presented in November 2022.

Prof. Douhan ‘urged sanctioning States to lift unilateral sanctions against Syria, warning that they were perpetuating and exacerbating the destruction and trauma suffered by the Syrian people since 2011.’

Her 15-page preliminary findings are detailed and deeply disturbing. Yet, I have found no evidence that the ABC, our national broadcaster, has given this OHCHR preliminary report any attention.

After the earthquake in Syria, two ABC journalists did write about President al-Assad and Asma al-Assad’s visit to a hospital in Aleppo, gratuitously describing the First Lady’s jumper and jacket for readers. They mentioned the harsh sanctions and, like DFAT, blamed the ‘Assad regime’ for them. But the two journalists gave no attention to the increasing number of female headed households in Syria impoverished by the sanctions, as reported in Prof. Douhan’s findings.

In 2020, Grayzone’s editor-in-chief Max Blumenthal undermined the justification for the harshest of the US sanctions in his article: ‘How a US and Qatari regime-change deception produced “Caesar” sanctions driving Syria towards famine.’

After the earthquake, the head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent called for the lifting of sanctions. The most the US administration would do was issue a 180-day exemption to its sanctions, but the exemptions apply only to transactions related to earthquake relief. The US policy on Syria remains one of ideological opposition both to the country’s reconstruction and the normalisation of relations with it.

Despite the wishes of Washington, in recent times the foreign ministers of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan as well as parliamentary delegations from Lebanon, Iraq, Oman, Algeria, and Tunisia have visited Damascus.

Syria is ever more clearly becoming the scene of a proxy war between the Global North and the Global South.

Do we believe the price Syrians pay is worth it? Perhaps, on our behalf, the Australian Government, DFAT and the Treasury have decided it is. Australia has close economic ties with Qatar – a tiny country whose wealth has given it inordinate influence. It is a country that has played a pivotal role in the war on Syria, acknowledged in 2017 by Qatar’s former prime minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani – the politician who, in 2015, gifted €3m to Australia’s now Head of State.

Al Jazeera – the media outlet owned by Qatar’s royal family – has played a key role in the war on Syria. On its Arabic channels, it promoted hatred towards Syrians, particularly Alawite Syrians, who did not support the ‘revolution’. In a 2012 Guardian article, a former Al Jazeera reporter explained how, in May 2011, Al Jazeera had forbidden him from reporting on armed men he had witnessed crossing into Syria from Lebanon.

Al Jazeera heavily promoted Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, whose fatwas against the Syrian government would have incited much hatred and violence against ordinary Syrians, Sunni, Alawite or Christian, who didn’t support insurgents. (Incidentally, Sheikh Qaradawi, who was a friend of Qatar’s royal family and the spiritual head of the Muslim Brotherhood, once provided justification for the flogging of women.)

Another controversial player in the war on Syria was a personal friend of the Bush family – Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who was given the Syria file in 2013. It has been reported he played a role in fabricating the alleged 2013 sarin attack in Ghouta.

In 2012, former Melbourne University academic Jeremy Salt, described the efforts to destroy Syria as ‘politicide’. He wrote: ‘Syria is being ruined, destroyed before our eyes as an actor on the Arab stage, with the west playing the same game of divide and rule that has worked so well  for it over the past 200 years.’

In those 200 years, visitors to Syria would have attested that Syria was enchanting; its people were gracious, generous and warm. Evidence of the latter can still be found in today’s Syria: see this short video: ‘British volunteer Syrian Red Crescent working with children in east Aleppo’.

The unilateral coercive sanctions Australia and its allies impose on Syria make us complicit in a war on the people of Syria, and arguably complicit in policide, if not genocide.

To lobby our government to lift the cruel sanctions, we must both educate ourselves and come to the realisation that Syrians are human, like us.

  • First published at Pearls and Irritations.
  • Susan Dirgham is an English as a Second Language Teacher. Beginning in September 2003, she taught at the British Council in Damascus for two years and has subsequently visited Syria several times. With a team that includes Syrian women on humanitarian visas in Australia, she edits the magazine ‘Beloved Syria – Considering Syrian Perspectives’. She can be reached at Read other articles by Susan.