Syrian Americans in Syria feel unfairly targeted by sanctions


Ahmad is not one of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s cronies.

But since August, when the U.S. imposed its most recent sanctions on Syria — which Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said targeted “Assad and dozens of his cronies” in the wake of a bloody crackdown on protesters — Ahmad has dissolved one company and resigned his positions in several other business ventures.

Ahmad, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Syria, moved back to his homeland seven years ago. Under the executive order signed by President Obama, which froze any Syrian government assets in the United States and banned oil imports, an American working in Syria is deemed an exported service and in violation of the sanctions.

“The U.S. is not going to contribute to a government or the structure of a government that is behaving in this way,” said a U.S. Embassy official in Damascus, the Syrian capital, who was not authorized to speak on the record.


Even Ahmad’s volunteer activities, which include serving on the boards of several nonprofit groups, could be illegal. He is holding out hope that the U.S. Treasury Department will issue an exemption before Nov. 25, when the grace period for winding down business interests ends.

“The sanctions are devastating to me,” said Ahmad, who lives in a Damascus suburb and did not want his last name used. “I think the U.S. sanctions are way too broad. Their breadth tells me the U.S. does not really understand the situation on the ground in Syria. These broad sanctions are like carpet bombing an entire country instead of targeting the few bad individuals you are after.”

The effect of the U.S. and European sanctions on people such as Ahmad provides a look at how they could end up affecting the Syrian economy more broadly, with comparisons already being made to Saddam Hussein-era Iraq, where many complained that international sanctions hurt the Iraqi people more than the leadership that was their focus.

Some Americans feel unnecessarily targeted.

For the last few months, Karriem Shabazz was stuck in Damascus with a MasterCard that no longer worked and a Social Security check he couldn’t cash. Eventually the checks stopped coming altogether.

Shabazz, an American who taught English at the American Language Center, was reluctant to leave the country where his wife and three children were born. But when he found himself with little means of supporting himself and his family, and as the unrest in the capital worsened, he decided to leave. He arrived in Atlanta this month and is trying to “start over.”

Since the unrest began in March, there has been a large outflow of Americans from Syria, said a U.S. consular affairs official in Damascus, who was not authorized to speak on the record. It is difficult to track the number of Americans in any foreign country, because they are not required to register with the embassy, but the number in Syria is thought to still be in the thousands, mostly in Damascus and Aleppo.


Complaints that the sanctions are unfairly affecting Syrians and Syrian Americans are come amid criticism that the measures are largely symbolic against the Assad regime because there has been little trade between the two countries since sanctions were first imposed in 2004.

Americans in violation of the sanctions, the embassy official said, could face penalties that include a warning letter, fines or even criminal prosecution.

Ahmad described the sanctions as “counterproductive,” saying he felt like “collateral damage.”

He said one Syrian American doctor he knows had left Syria rather than risk getting into trouble for treating patients. Others, faced with having to end their business interests and radically alter their lives in Syria, have decided to stay anyway. Still others are holding out hope that the sanctions won’t be enforced on American citizens not connected to the regime.

The embassy official said it was important for Americans to understand why the sanctions were put in place. But she said she was sympathetic to the predicament they faced, especially because most of them hold dual citizenship. In the last few weeks, the embassy in Damascus has seen an increase in calls about the sanctions.

“They do feel caught between a rock and hard place: ‘This is where I live, this is where my business is, this is where my family is, but I am also proud to be an American, so how can you do this to me?’” the embassy official said.


Many Syrian Americans have lived in Syria for years and care for elderly parents or have children enrolled in schools, she said.

Even though their exact transactions can’t be known by the U.S. government, one American woman living on the outskirts of Damascus worried that living in Syria would raise red flags when she returned to America. Making a living in Syria is now impossible without breaking U.S. law, she said.

In May, when one of Syria’s biggest companies, Cham Holding, was sanctioned, a friend of her husband, an American who was working for a subsidiary, quit the next day, fearing that he could face a lengthy prison sentence. The couple moved back to the U.S., she said.

“When you’ve been living here for many years and your whole livelihood is tied to your local business, what do you do?” the woman said. “Sanctioning the entire country without distinction hurts too many people regardless of their political sentiments.”