On November 11, the EPP Working Group on Intercultural and Religious Dialogue at the European Parliament organised an online discussion related to humanitarian exceptions to EU sanctions against Syria.

The discussion was organised in cooperation with COMECE, the Commission of the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, and CEC, the Conference of European Churches.

The welcome to the discussion was offered by Fr. Manuel Barrios Prieto, the General Secretary of COMECE, along with Members of the European Parliament György Hölvényi and Jan Olbrycht, co-chairmen of the Working Group on Intercultural and Religious Dialogue.

The international sanctions against the Syrian regime were introduced by the EU, the USA and other countries almost 10 years ago. For humanitarian reasons, the EU does not apply sanctions to food and medical supplies.

According to Fr. Manuel Barrios Prieto, the need for humanitarian aid is increasing in this situation of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today, 11 million people of Syria need help, with 80% of the people there living below the poverty line.

At the same time, Syrian logistical companies do not want to facilitate the delivery and distribution of humanitarian aid, and banks refuse to accept money transfers. Most of the humanitarian aid is distributed by Assad and Muslim-controlled structures, and it is very difficult for Christian humanitarian organizations like Caritas to operate in the country.

The European Commission (EC), represented by Mr. Roberto Crespi from Directorate-General for Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets Union (DG FISMA), stressed that the EC did react to bottlenecks and apply certain exemptions to the sanctions regime.

For example, at the beginning of the sanctions it was not allowed for humanitarian aid providers to buy petroleum in Syria, but now it is possible.

Of course, much more needs to be done, especially in the face of the COVID pandemic. The European Commission aims at providing guidance to aid operators in order to overcome the difficulties.

Thomas Heine-Geldern, the Executive President of Aid to the Church in Need International – which since 2011 has distributed 40 million euros to the Syrian people – confirmed that even with the exemptions in place the major difficulties are of a technical nature.

The biggest difficulty relates to the freeze on the transfer of funds to Syria due to European IBAN and American SWIFT automatically blocking Syrian-related money transfers.

There have been cases in which organisations carried the money in cash across borders. The funds are needed, because getting a licence from the authorities to import humanitarian goods is difficult, and it is more practical to buy them in Syria.

Furthermore, due to sanctions the prices of the everyday goods have skyrocketed, while the majority of salaries decreased to just 50 euros a month in some cases. Corruption and the black market are flourishing, especially for embargoed goods. Additional problems are accumulating due to the situation in neighbouring Lebanon.

Some of the speakers, such as Rev. Riad Jarjour, a Protestant Syrian pastor from the Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD), think that the sanctions against Assad are primarily hitting the population and those most in need.

According to Jarjour, the sanctions must either be lifted or reviewed so as to become practicable and effective.

The participants of the dialogue agreed on the urgent need to work on the bottlenecks produced by the existing regime of sanctions for the Syrian regime, which seriously inhibit the effectiveness of aid provided by Christian organisations.

More by Novena Brussels contributor Angele Bucyte:

Leading Lithuanian economist and former MEP hails Pope’s new encyclical ‘Fratelli tutti’

More on the situation in Syria:

June 2020: Pope asks EU, UN for solutions to “serious socio-political and economic crises” in Syria

April: Italian Catholic group pleads with EU, US to lift “cruel and unacceptable” sanctions on Syria

March: Church group brings more refugees to France through humanitarian corridors: “Despite the coronavirus, we haven’t forgotten Syria”

February: Pope deplores “so many calamities” in Syria: “People that make war don’t know how to control their passions”


Angele Bucyte is a European economist and professor who has worked for a number of universities and public institutions such as the European Commission and the European Parliament in Brussels. She is a practicing Catholic who collaborates closely with the religious communities in Brussels, including COMECE, the Jesuit European Social Centre and the Chapel for Europe.