DAMASCUS — Today, a civilization that used to lead the world and for centuries was the beacon of learning, tolerance and trade, and that still protects our global cultural heritage, is damaged—and only the Syrian people can rebuild it for all of us. We need to help them.
Last month, half-heartedly and without unanimity among its 28 member states, the European Union levied yet more sanctions on Syrian officials. Passed under pressure from the usual suspects (the US, France, Britain, and the international Zionist lobby), the EU measure targets 12 government ministers, none of whom wields or holds police authority of any type. Not a single one of these individuals has any capacity or wherewithal—or even any interest—in committing “serious human rights violations,” as the measure accuses them of having carried out.
It is a charge that amounts to defamation of character and which the EU made without offering a scintilla of evidence. Widely seen as EU frustration over failed western policy in Syria, the action is also thought to have been motivated by a sense that the EU ought to keep itself relevant by…well…doing something, given that there is a deep split within its ranks over military aid to Syrian rebels. Coming three weeks after the Syrian presidential election (generally viewed as a significant victory for the Assad government), the measure puts the officials under an EU travel ban and asset freeze, and it also raises to 191 the number of Syrian government employees, along with 53 companies, now being targeted by EU sanctions.
The impact of EU and western sanctions on the Syrian economy has been severe—this is well known. Heavy fighting has damaged or destroyed economic infrastructure, significantly impeding normal access to sources of income for average Syrians. In addition, internal distribution and supply networks have been disrupted if not destroyed; currency depreciation has devastated purchasing power; and the heavy US, EU and Arab League sanctions have hampered imports and exports. Even the import of items not subject to the sanctions has been restricted by the sanctions on financial transactions, while tourism revenue, for example, has all but disappeared.
The EU’s ill-considered action simply adds to the multitude of woes faced by Syrian citizens, woes which have forced many of them to leave their country and become refugees. The ministers targeted tend to be technocrats, specialists in their field of work; they are not major government policy makers. Some are involved in humanitarian work, and some of them are ministers whose efforts in this regard have made them quite popular with Syrian people, both at home and abroad. One of these is Kinda al-Shammat, who heads Syria’s Ministry of Social Affairs.
Minister Shammat works closely with the U.N. and other aid agencies operating on the ground in Syria, her efforts facilitating the delivery of assistance to millions of internally displaced Syrians. The UN has hundreds of aid workers working with the Syrian government through her. She has never been involved in “serious human rights violations,” but she is a well-known human rights advocate. Ms. Shammat holds a PhD in Private Law from the University of Damascus, where she teaches, and she has also worked with the Syrian Commission for Family Affairs, the General Union of Syrian Women, and the UN Development Fund. In the latter capacity she served as a legal expert in family affairs and violence against women, and in 2012 she was also a member of the committee that amended the Syrian constitution.
Ms. Shammat first came to this observer’s attention for her continued dedication to getting aid to Palestinian refugees trapped inside Yarmouk camp during the current crisis. She survived an assassination attempt by rebels opposed to her views on women rights, and some suggest that she became a target for al-Qaeda types last year when Damascus University banned the wearing of total full face veils. It was a decision she openly welcomed at the time, saying that it was in line with the Syrian belief in moderation.
“We in Syria have never gone to the extreme left or the extreme right,” she told Al-Arabiya TV.
Kinda al-Shammat is surely one of the last officials, in Syria or anywhere else, who would warrant EU sanctions against her, and it is deeply egregious that she should be targeted, along with her colleagues, without any proof of wrongdoing. Most of the other ministers added to the sanctions list also have stellar records of public service; they would doubtless be applauded by the people, and probably, under different circumstances, would even be esteemed and well received in all 28 EU member states as well. These include Finance Minister Ismael Ismael, Economy and Foreign Trade Minister Khodr Orfali, Oil Minister Suleiman Al Abbas, Industry Minister Kamal Eddin Tu’ma, Labor Minister Hassan Hijazi, and Minister of Tourism, Bishr Riad Yaziji. None of these individuals has ever been accused of any conduct that could be construed as anything other than humanitarian. Of these it is perhaps Yaziji who most embodies the “new breed” of Syrian officials.
Yaziji was appointed as Minister of Tourism on August 22, 2013, and he appears beholden to no person or thing other than his own vision of restoring Syria’s vital tourist industry. Born in Aleppo in 1972, Yaziji is a businessman, and he is currently the youngest member of the Assad Cabinet. With a Bachelor’s degree in Informatics Engineering from Aleppo University (1995), he is possessed with distinctively Kennedy-esque good looks, voices progressive ideas, and exerts a charm and charisma that instantly connects with ordinary citizens and foreigners alike. Not affiliated with the Baath Party, Yaziji is an independent and was elected as such to the People’s Assembly, or the Syrian parliament. This observer has closely followed his work, both in the media and from direct personal experience.
Prior to the conflict, tourism brought in more than $8 billion annually, and as one admirer of Yaziji, who also works in government, put it, “The Tourism Ministry is working to reconnect to the world the way we Syrians used to reach out.” The official added:
“Syria’s treasures, from the cradle of civilization that we are, fundamentally belong to all of humanity, and please accept our promise—that we will do our best to repair all damage to the antiquities and will welcome assistance, as we shall welcome every visitor again, before long, enshallah (God willing).”
Minister Yaziji appears to thrive on the broad scope and depth of his work, which in fact includes visiting Syrian archaeological sites and drawing international focus on the need to protect and restore humanity’s collective cultural heritage, of which the people of Syria are the custodians. He also spends his time participating in youth festivals, visiting wounded citizens in hospitals, and recently attended a “Loyalty to Syria” gathering, where he stressed the importance of NGOs in conveying the reality of events in Syria to the global public. At that gathering he also discussed the unparalleled richness of the country’s historical and religious monuments, and spoke of “boosting the social values and developing national capacity to serve the best interest of Syria.”
This new generation of Syrian officials is dedicated to ameliorating the country’s humanitarian crisis as well as preserving our global heritage. They have been indefatigable in their around-the- clock projects, and they need to be encouraged, not hindered. In an interview with Reuters on June 28, Yaziji said the sanctions will not interfere with his work—and he also said he has never been involved with any “human rights violations” of any sort. Some have pointed to the curious timing of this latest round of sanctions, so soon after the presidential election, and have suggested that in reality it is a form of collective punishment of the Syrian people—for daring to vote the wrong way, or in a way disapproved of by the EU and the rest of the West.
The EU has spoken piously of “Cultural Heritage—our debt to the past, our promise to the future,” and claims that it seeks to “promote culture as a catalyst for creativity,” but its actions last month belie this. If it truly seeks to implement its claimed humanitarian values, the EU should work to open the paths of these Syrian officials, not close them. At the very least it should desist from layering more “show sanctions” upon those in Syria who are striving to salvage their country. Yaziji and al-Shammat are Syrian patriots whose invaluable work the EU should be encouraging rather than hindering with politically motivated sanctions and silly, gratuitous defamations of character.
Few in the Syrian Arab Republic these days question the urgency and enormity of the task of reconstructing their ancient country from war-caused destruction, the fall-out from a conflict already more than half as long as World War I and approaching two-thirds as long as World War II. For this ten-millennium civilization, emergency measures are needed to protect its thousands of priceless archaeological treasures, both from the ravages of war as well as plunder and illegal excavation wrought by thieves. The Syrian government has given high priority to the preservation of cultural heritage, a policy that presumably not many in the EU would openly disagree with. Yet the EU’s ill-considered sanctions are harming multi-faceted restoration efforts—by intimidating members of the international public who want to help and by attempting to isolate Syrian officials whose full schedules these days are consumed by humanitarian undertakings as well as projects aimed at restoring cultural heritage sites and preserving our link to the past. And by the way, some of these sites they are working to protect are included on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. These include the Ancient City of Aleppo , the Ancient City of Bosra , Ancient City of Damascus , Ancient Villages of Northern Syria, Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din, and the Site of Palmyra.
Syria and her hardworking public servants will survive these gratuitous political sanctions, but the sanctions likely will remain an indelible stain on the EU and its claimed humanitarian principles for a long time to come.