Tuesday, 23 February 2010

USA ends Syria travel "warning" but keeps financial sanctions


The USA has withdrawn its official “warning” regarding travel to Syria by US citizens, but has kept in place all of its economic sanctions against certain Syrian nationals, including the Syrian government.

Unfortunately, neither the official announcement that the warning has been withdrawn, nor the updated country-specific information for Syria from the State Department makes clear the risks posed by those economic sanctions to US citizens or residents who travel (legally) to Syria, or the precautions you need to take if you want to visit Syria (as I hope you will — it’s a fascinating country where, in general, people go further out their way to welcome and assist foreign visitors, especially those from the USA, than almost any other country I’ve ever visited).

Everything I said in this blog entry a year ago remains true:

It’s legal for citizens and residents of the USA to travel to Syria as tourists, and to spend money in Syria, but some banks and financial services providers in the USA have imposed their own private corporate sanctions, not disclosed to their customers, and not just against those entities designated by the government of the USA, but against anyone and everyone who travels to Syria, regardless of whether they do anything that violates the US government’s sanctions.

The U.S. government cracks down hard on banks that, even inadvertently, violate the sanctions, but does nothing against banks that go overboard and block legitimate transactions or freeze customer funds. Whether or not that’s government’s intent, its lopsided enforcement practices give banks a strong incentive to choose to implement private sanctions.

Don’t rely on your bank to disclose their practices. To avoid possible problems, get enough cash (US dollars or Euros) before you arrive in Syria to cover all the costs of your stay. Don’t use credit or ATM cards (virtually all of which are affiliated with US-based financial networks) in Syria. Don’t visit Web sites of US-based banks or other financial institutions or make phone calls to such institutions while you are in Syria.

None of this is required by law, but it might keep you away from serious problems such as those I had.

For what it’s worth, Syria is a police sate, with the usual mix of implications for visitors. The Syrian government’s national censorship firewall — which also blocks most blogging Web sites and encrypted protocols — is likely to make it difficult or impossible to access foreign financial Web sites, or to do so securely, even if those foreign sites don’t restrict access from what they think are Syrian IP addresses, or retaliate silently against account holders.

Moral of the story: Visit Syria, but bring cash.

Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 23 February 2010, 13:45 ( 1:45 PM)

I visited Syria last fall. The ATM in Aleppo airport wouldn't take my card (but it was a Sunday), and I sometimes had to try three ATMs in a town before one would accept my card, but my Credit Union ATM card did work, as did my Capital One credit card. (See mytimetotravel.wordpress.com for more on my trip.) I had, of course, let the companies where I would be traveling before I left.

Posted by: Kathy, 2 March 2010, 06:16 ( 6:16 AM)

Thanks for your report, Kathy. Unfortunately, in some cases an ATM card or credit card *does* work in Syria, but the card-issuing bank imposes sanctions (sometimes without notice) on the cardholder after processing the transaction. And trying your card at multiple ATM's is risky, because it multiplies the chances that one of the tries will trigger sanctions by your bank (again, sometimes without notice), whether or not the transaction is approved. Attempting to use a credit or ATM card in Syria is risky, and the risk is not limited to the possibility that the transaction might be declined -- you could have your entire bank account frozen without notice.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 2 March 2010, 07:25 ( 7:25 AM)

I just returned from Syria after a two-week trip where I settled my son for a summer Arabic course at the University of Damascus. Before leaving I had extensive discussions with Schwab and Wells Fargo Bank about the use of ATM/credit cards in Syria.

Schwab was very helpful and connected me directly to their OFAC department. They informed us we could use the ATM/Credit cards in Syria if the vendor or the ATM machines accepted them. But if we tried to access our accounts from a Syrian IP address they would freeze our accounts. After my son filled out a short form for Schwab they said he could then also access his account from Syria. We have not accessed the accounts from Syria via internet, but we had no trouble getting cash at the ATMs.

Wells Fargo was not at all helpful. The local branch just shined me on and said that the ATM card would "probably" not work in Syria. My wife asked her friend (wife of a WFB board) to find out. The latter attended a function with the entire top brass of WFB and came back with erroneous info: "That won't work since OFAC fines the bank an amount equal to that transferred to Syria." I wrote directly to the President of the WFB and received a reply (too late for me) that the WFB ATM cards would work in Syria. I did not try their cards since the Schwab cards worked and the fees and conversion rates were much more favorable with the latter.

I believe that Schwab has the software to make an exception to online inquiries into one's personal accounts if you arrange with them prior to departure. But you are entirely correct that American financial institutions are over-reacting to the OFAC rules regarding Syria and implementing their own corporate sanctions, unnecessarily inconveniencing legal travellers to Syria.

Posted by: mike, 2 June 2010, 17:41 ( 5:41 PM)
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