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US issues new Syria sanctions guidance for NGOs

NGO have complained that sanctions are preventing aid delivery [Getty]

Date of publication: 7 April, 2021

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The US State Treasury has issued new guidance for NGOs working in Syria to avoid sanctions.

The US Treasury Department has released further guidance regarding the US Caesar Act sanctions and humanitarian assistance provided in Syria by NGOs.

Writing on Twitter, the Treasury Department said that the US seeks to ensure that Syrians who are in need are able to access lifesaving humanitarian aid. 

“To that end, today Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) published two FAQs providing further guidance on the Caesar Act sanctions & certain humanitarian assistance,” they added.

In the past, the US Caesar Act sanctions have been criticised for negatively impacting the work of humanitarian aid, and preventing them from delivering supplies and services in the country. 

The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act was passed in 2019 with bipartisan support and was intended to pressure the Assad regime and punish it for the brutal crimes it has committed against the civilian population.

Since they launched, the sanction have been criticised for their broad scope, which ha created a number of barriers for humanitarian organisations that are seeking to provide aid to the Syrian populations.

Many organisations fear that working in the country could expose them to being sanctioned. 

“Humanitarian operations are severely hindered by their inability to bring money into the country to pay staff, procure goods, and run programs. Unless banks persuaded that there is no risk transacting with bona fide humanitarian NGOs, these operational issues in Syria will persist, further impacting Syrian civilians,” Basma Alloush, policy and advocacy advisor for the Norwegian Refugee Council, focusing on US humanitarian policy, told The New Arab.

In their new guidance, OFAC has attempted to clarify what work is permitted by NGOs in the humanitarian sector. 

“OFAC remains committed to ensuring that humanitarian assistance can flow to the people of Syria and maintains a favourable policy supporting the provision of humanitarian assistance,” they write.

“Treasury continues to support the critical work of governments, certain international organisations, NGOs, and individuals delivering food, medicine, medical supplies, and humanitarian assistance to civilians in Syria.”

NGOs who deliver aid to the region have been pressuring the Biden administration to provide a financial safe space for them to work. 

“The new OFAC FAQs are welcome, and we appreciate the Biden administration’s efforts to try to alleviate some of the risk on humanitarian operations,” said Alloush.

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“However, these FAQs are not legally binding and are simply clarifications on existing policy without offering any needed change. Therefore, they will do little to address the banks comfort in working with NGOs,” she added.

Despite not being the definitive step that NGOs such as the Norwegian Refugee Council was looking for, it is a signal that they could be heading in the right direction, but simultaneously still falls short when it comes to the issue of non-US persons. 

“Leaving non-US persons exposed to this risk is unhelpful and will cause many organisations to "self-censor" and become more risk averse in carrying out the critical work needed to help Syrians,” explains Alloush. 

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