Washington D.C., Aug. 8, 2023 – The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) will not renew General License 23 (GL 23), which authorized earthquake relief efforts in Syria for the last six months. Instead, OFAC issued an updated OFAC Compliance Communiqué: Guidance for the Provision of Humanitarian Assistance to Syria and an amended Syria Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ 937), both of which clarify prior Syria humanitarian assistance guidance and authorizations for non-governmental organization (NGO) and other actors’ activities, transactions, and services in Syria. 

The Charity & Security Network (C&SN) condemns OFAC’s choice not to extend the earthquake specific license, a decision which dismisses evidence of its effectiveness, and breaks from standards set by global economic leaders. The E.U. extended their corresponding earthquake relief exemption by six months through Feb. 24 2024. The U.K. extended their General Trade License (Syria Sanctions – Earthquake Relief Efforts in Syria) indefinitely (which is focused on petroleum products). Switzerland’s original exemption, issued on Mar. 3 2023, is not time bound. 

On Aug. 4 2023, C&SN sent a letter to the Honorable Brian Nelson, under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Department of Treasury, urging the renewal of GL 23. The letter highlighted the importance GL 23 played in synchronizing earthquake relief efforts with international partners, the assurances it provided to financial institutions that money transfers supporting NGO life-saving earthquake relief activities would not be penalized, and underscored the need for an indefinite time frame to facilitate long term rebuilding efforts in earthquake struck communities. 

C&SN is disheartened by OFAC’s choice not to renew GL 23. Many NGOs have indicated to C&SN that their partner financial institutions will only continue to facilitate money transfers for earthquake relief efforts in Syria as long as GL 23 is active, despite existing Syria OFAC authorizations for humanitarian aid. 

Although GL 23 and its accompanying press release were essential in the former’s broad authorizations and in both providing clear guidance to financial institutions, many activities such as humanitarian relief, democracy building, education, and various infrastructure projects in non-regime held locations in Northwest and Northeast Syria were already permitted by General License 22 (GL 22), which was issued on May 12, 2022. As noted in C&SN’s recent letter to Treasury, this indicates that the financial sector is either largely unaware or not sufficiently comfortable with the legal coverage provided by previous Syria GLs. 

Rather than extend GL 23, OFAC instead issued an updated Syria Compliance Communiqué and amended FAQ 937 meant to highlight existing sanctions safeguards for NGO and additional actors within previously issued GLs and FAQs under the Syria Sanctions Regulations (SySR), 31 CFT part 542. Within the recently issued Communiqué is a provision which C&SN members indicated has been helpful for their banks processing transactions: “As explained in FAQ 937, U.S. depository institutions, U.S. registered brokers or dealers in securities, and U.S. registered money transmitters can process such transactions and may rely on the statements of their customers that such transactions are authorized unless they know or have reason to know a transaction is not authorized.” 

C&SN is grateful for this inclusion, and encourages financial sector actors to utilize this, in addition to language in GL 22 that is nearly identical to language in GL 23, in their decisions to provide services to NGOs operating in Syria: “U.S. financial institutions and U.S. registered money transmitters may rely on the originator of a funds transfer with regard to compliance with paragraphs (a) or (b) of this general license, provided that the financial institution does not know or have reason to know that the funds transfer is not in compliance with paragraphs (a) or (b) of this general license.”


Understanding Syria Sanctions Exceptions

The Compliance Communiqué includes, amongst others, the following guidance and authorizations for humanitarian and other assistance:

Although not included in the Compliance Communiqué, a comprehensive list of Specific Licensing and GLs under the Syria Sanctions Regulations (SySR), 31 CFT part 542, and Syria humanitarian assistance-related FAQs can be found in the OFAC Fact Sheet: Provision of Humanitarian Assistance and Trade to Combat COVID-19

The Compliance Communiqué also clarifies that the Syria NGO license authorizes NGO activities in support of disaster relief in Syria that fall into the following categories: “humanitarian projects that meet basic human needs, democracy building, education, non-commercial development projects directly benefiting the Syrian people, and the preservation and protection of cultural heritage sites.” The Communiqué goes on to list several activities within these categories that are permitted for disaster relief, and notably, does not limit disaster relief to “earthquake” relief alone

C&SN recommends that all NGOs transferring funds into Syria cite GL 22, the Compliance Communiqué, FAQ 937, and additional Syria GLs – such as the Syria NGO license and accompanying FAQs – when facilitating transactions into Syria through a financial institution, and to specifically reference which authorized activity within the OFAC authorizations the transaction falls under. 

Treasury has stated that they plan to engage with financial institutions and NGOs to ensure that transactions for humanitarian aid and disaster relief continue in the wake of this decision. C&SN calls on Treasury to continue to include civil society and NGOs in its outreach and communication efforts with financial institutions and federal bank regulators so that all parties understand what is already permitted under OFAC-issued GLs. The SySR weave an intricate web of complexity, and the importance of GL 23 lay not in the technicality of its protections – which already existed in GL 22 and other prior Syria authorizations – but in the role it played in clearly communicating to financial institutions that they had immediate coverage to support all transactions, including for NGOs, in relation to earthquake relief in Syria.