x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Sanctions target governments, but hurt people more

Sanctions often seem like a good idea to remote policy-makers, but they hurt ordinary people, not the leaders who deserve punishment.

'Three precious magical stones were hidden away in the world's three greatest historic capitals: Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus." This was the beginning of a legend often repeated by an elder in our family, whenever my siblings and I wanted to hear a story.

"The stones protected the capitals until one day, they were stolen," he went on. Who stole them, and why, changed whenever he told us the story. But at the time it didn't matter.

Having visited the three capitals as an adult, I can see glimpses of where this legend came from. In the case of Cairo, there are gradual changes - for the better, I hope - but for war-ravaged and broken Baghdad and now further-isolated Damascus, their status is less clear. Residents of each clearly need the equivalent of protective stones today. Unfortunately, they are getting just the opposite.

Besides international sanctions imposed earlier, this week the Arab League voted to impose sanctions on Syria after it refused to agree to terms regarding letting independent monitors into the country following months of conflicts and bloodshed on its streets.

While the sanctions are mainly targeting Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and his government, they also include halting funding by Arab governments for projects in Syria and a ban on commercial flights between Syria and member states. Turkey has also promised to cut diplomatic and economic ties with Syria. There isn't a corner in Syria where you don't find Turkish products.

This is how it starts, the beginning of demise and the rise of resentment. And it is the people who suffer first.

Emotions are already flying high in the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, where racist accusations - like "there are too many Syrians refugees" - are being made. Fears of Syrians "overstaying" their welcome has resurfaced, as unreasonable as the concerns are. Families in the Lebanese port city of Tripoli, with traditionally strong ties to Syria, are divided among themselves.

That is why I cringe at the mention of "economic" sanctions, a blanket word that softens the real effect on the average citizens on the ground, even if the declared intention is the defence of "the people" against an unjust government.

Iraq and Lebanon objected to Arab League sanctions, with Iraq stating that economic blockades don't work in practice. Who can blame Iraqis, who suffered a devastating humanitarian crisis from the UN sanctions imposed from 1990 to 2003, with reparations paid out to Kuwait still taking place to this day?

As I talked on the phone with relatives in Syria after the announced sanctions recently one of them said: "You will have to smuggle some pencils the next time you come here."

"Pencils?" I asked. To which she replied: "They are weapons of mass distractions that Syrian authorities will be using to produce nuclear bombs."

She was referring to that scandal back in 2000 when the UN was forced to deny that it banned pencils into Iraq, following the shipment of millions of pencils donated by Jordanians as part of a continuing campaign against the embargo. Everyday items, even disposable baby diapers, became impossible to obtain. As many as half a million children suffered.

If Syrians are worrying, how about Iranians? It keeps getting worse for that empire with a wealthy history and regional ties that are often swept aside by the general public and media. Iran is continuously facing further isolation and now there are talks of even harsher economic and political measures after Iranian protesters stormed two British diplomatic compounds.

Why should people continue to suffer consequences because of just one man in power? It's a question even Iranians ask. When I was there recently, two young Iranian students asked me: "Why do you all hate us so much? We are Muslims too like you."

It was a good question. Too bad there are no magic stones that we can dig up to protect people from tyrants, and economic blackmail.