Washington D.C., Aug. 3 2023 – General License 23 (GL 23), which permits earthquake disaster relief efforts in Syria that would otherwise not be authorized under the Syrian Sanctions Regulations, 31 CFR part 542 (SySR), is set to expire on Aug. 8, 2023. Should the exemption be allowed to expire, life-saving aid and assistance serving millions of people across Syria risks suspension. C&SN urgently calls on the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to extend GL 23 indefinitely and ensure relief efforts continue to serve and rebuild communities devastated by the earthquake.

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck near the Turkey-Syria border on Feb. 6, 2023 killed over 50,000 people across both countries. Although aid convoys were quickly dispatched to Turkey, a myriad of challenges, including logistical and access hurdles, and delayed responses by the Government of Syria (GoS) and the UN, impeded disaster relief efforts to Syria. Compounding these humanitarian access challenges are extensive financial crime regulations, such as economic sanctions issued by OFAC.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, OFAC has issued economic sanctions on both the Assad regime and numerous rebel factions operating across the country. The overly broad scope of sanctions creates numerous hurdles that outright block or impede civil society organizations (CSOs) from providing relief services to individuals in jurisdictions like Syria, where intricate and legally complex sanctions regimes are burdensome, time-consuming, and expensive to navigate. As a result, despite the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) clear calls for the financial sector to implement a risk-based approach (RBA), banks often refrain from transferring funds to such regions, even to facilitate humanitarian work, due to fear of breaching financial regulations like sanctions. 

OFAC issued GL 23 on Feb. 9 2023 to exempt all transactions relating to earthquake relief that would normally be prohibited under the SySR. It is notable that the U.S. was the first to issue this type of humanitarian carveout – the U.K. and E.U. followed suit later. We applaud Treasury for setting this global standard. However, the license was issued after the critical 72-hour window following an earthquake. This meant that earthquake victims died trapped under rubble while licensing protocols were being finalized, a point that C&SN’s Ashleigh Subramanian-Montgomery underscored in her quote for FastCompany on Feb. 16 2023. To address this, C&SN urges OFAC to adopt a Standing General License that can be administered within the first 24-hours in the wake of a disaster of this magnitude, across global contexts. We stand ready to support in the development of such a license. 

Additionally, GL 23 was only authorized for a six-month period, creating a challenging operating environment for aid and relief organizations carrying out the assistance needed to support the country in rebuilding. In its engagement with organizations active in Syria, C&SN has learned of several cases where GL 23 has been essential for bank’s funds transfers and transactions to the country. Subramanian-Montgomery highlighted the importance of renewing GL 23 to help facilitate bank transfers to the region in an article by The National on Jul. 18 2023.

Although the license has been time-limited, the positive impacts of GL 23 must be recognized. While OFAC authorizations already existed to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid to Syria, it appears that GL 23 has enhanced the facilitation of transactions to the country. This indicates that GL 23 has been widely well-received by financial sector actors, who now feel they have greater legal protections and comfort to facilitate transactions into Syria. Organizations have reported less blocking of funds and shorter delays in funds transfers, and that banks have directly attributed these changes to GL 23. 

The overall impact of GL 23 on transactions to Syria could be attributable to several factors, including the specific language in GL 23 addressing financial institutions – however, almost identical language for financial institutions is included in Syria GL 22, issued on May 12 2022 – and existing Syria GLs should enable these funds transfers and transactions irrespective of GL 23. Financial sector actors, it seems, are either unaware of this or simply do not feel enough legal coverage and comfort from the existing Syria GLs. C&SN engagement with partners operating in Syria has revealed that a number of these actors noted they will not continue transactions to the country if GL 23 is not extended. 

Another possible factor is the multilateral and congruent action of the U.K., E.U., and Switzerland issuing similar exemptions for post-earthquake relief to Syria. This congruency created greater harmonization across jurisdictions and limited the complexities of navigating multiple sanctions regimes. Notably, the U.K. and E.U. have extended these exemptions beyond their original six-month window. Switzerland’s exemption does not have an expiration date, C&SN urges the U.S. to follow suit.

GL 23’s “inclusion of non-U.S. actors has also been seen as highly beneficial compared to previous authorizations,” as noted by the Carter Center in their Jul. 11, 2023  Effectiveness of Humanitarian Exceptions to Sanctions: Lessons from the Syria Earthquake report encouraging the renewal of GL 23. The report also noted the positive reception of OFAC’s additional guidance on permissible transactions and sending personal remittances under GL 23, as seen in its Compliance Communiqué.

Additionally, one specific example of the positive impact of GL 23 is GoFundMe, which initially refused to host several fundraisers benefiting earthquake victims in Syria. As noted by The Century Foundation, days after GL 23 was issued, GoFundMe updated its site to include “how to safely fundraise for Syria,” which specifically referenced GL 23, stating: “Following the updated Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) guidance released on February 9, individuals can now use GoFundMe to raise funds for humanitarian aid efforts in Syria, including through personal remittances to those impacted by this crisis.” 

Renewing GL 23 remains paramount to ensure that communities upended by the earthquake are able to rebuild with international support, efforts that could take a “generation” according to first responders. Removing a specific authorization period  would provide rebuilding efforts the time required to address the deep social, health, gendered, and economic implications of this disaster. The U.S. was the first to issue disaster relief exemptions to Syria following the devastating earthquake, and they will stand largely alone in the international arena if they do not extend GL 23. C&SN joins partners in urging immediate and indefinite extension.