Recognizing the importance of humanitarian aid to support rescue and recovery efforts in Syria, the US Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) issued a new General License on February 9, 2023 focused on the Syrian earthquake.  This new General License supplements existing OFAC regulations and authorizations supporting humanitarian relief in Syria.

Unless authorized by a general or specific license, US sanctions on Syria generally prohibit US persons from participating in or facilitating the following activities:

  • Dealing with the Government of Syria, which has been blocked;
  • Exporting or reexporting services to Syria, including exports to third countries where the benefit of such services is received in Syria;
  • Investing in Syria; and
  • Importing Syria-origin petroleum/petroleum products.

Additionally, OFAC has added many Syrian entities and persons to the OFAC List of Specially Designated Nationals (“SDN List”). 

New General License 23 authorizes, subject to limited exceptions, all transactions “related to” earthquake relief efforts in Syria that would otherwise be prohibited by US sanctions on Syria through August 8, 2023.  Use of the words “related to” is notably broad, compared to OFAC’s typical authorizations of transactions “ordinarily incident to” certain activities.  The authorization in the General License allows for the processing or transfer of funds on behalf of third-country persons to or from Syria in support of transactions related to earthquake relief efforts.  The General License does not authorize transactions involving the importation into the United States of petroleum or petroleum products of Syrian origin or transactions with most SDNs; the General License allows transactions with SDNs that are Government of Syria entities. 

Other OFAC general licenses already exist to support humanitarian aid and some other activities in Syria.  For example, there is a General License contained in the US sanctions regulations for Syria at 31 CFR 542.516 that allows for the following activities by nongovernmental organizations:

  • Activities to support humanitarian projects to meet basic human needs in Syria, including, but not limited to, drought relief, assistance to refugees, internally displaced persons, and conflict victims, food and medicine distribution, and the provision of health services;
  • Activities to support democracy building in Syria, including, but not limited to, rule of law, citizen participation, government accountability, and civil society development projects;
  • Activities to support education in Syria, including, but not limited to, combating illiteracy, increasing access to education, and assisting education reform projects;
  • Activities to support non-commercial development projects directly benefiting the Syrian people, including, but not limited to, preventing infectious disease and promoting maternal/child health, sustainable agriculture, and clean water assistance; and
  • Activities to support the preservation and protection of cultural heritage sites in Syria, including, but not limited to, museums, historic buildings, and archaeological sites.

Another Syria-related General License (General License 22) authorizes certain otherwise prohibited investment and the export of services in a number of economic sectors (notably, power grid infrastructure, construction, and health services) to “non-regime held” areas in northeast and northwest Syria, which covers some of the areas worst hit by the earthquake. While it is geographically limited, General License 22 – unlike General License 23 – is not timebound.  Other existing authorizations relate to the activities of international organizations, COVID-related relief, and activities involving internet access, among other activities.  

As noted in the Treasury Department press release related to the issuance of General License 23, US sanctions are not intended to target humanitarian assistance in Syria.  US non-governmental institutions, financial institutions, and others involved with earthquake and other humanitarian-related assistance in Syria may move forward with necessary speed to assist with disaster relief efforts.

The Assad government has also agreed to open two additional border crossings in northern Syria which should allow for more efficient humanitarian assistance and aid delivery to the country’s worst hit areas.