Sanctions Stepped Up on Syria

Still unclear whether new measures will deal critical blow to regime.
  • Oil storage tanks near Syria’s border with Iraq bearing the image of late president Hafez al-Assad and his sons. (Photo: Richard Messenger/Flickr)

As protests in Syria enter their sixth month and the European Union agrees to ban imports of Syrian oil, doubts remain over whether such measures can have a decisive effect on a regime that looks willing to fight until the end.

With military and diplomatic resources spread thin in Libya, western governments have so far been reluctant to embark on direct intervention in Syria, and efforts to bring diplomatic pressure on the regime at the United Nations have been largely thwarted by allies of Damascus. Russia, which holds a veto on the UN Security Council, has opposed the imposition of a wide-scale arms embargo or asset freeze.

But European governments are pushing for more comprehensive measures, and this week banned purchases of Syrian oil by EU states. The 27-member bloc accounts for nearly 95 per cent of all of Syria’s oil exports,

When EU ministers met in Poland on September 2 to agree the new sanctions, they also expanded the number of entities subject to asset freezes and EU travel bans by seven, including four people.

Unlike their Libyan counterparts, activists in Syria have remained resolutely opposed to direct foreign intervention in the nationwide uprising, in which some 2,200 civilians have been killed since March, according to the United Nations.

“Of all the civic communities resisting authoritarian rule across the Arab Spring, Syria’s has been the least enthusiastic about getting third parties involved,” Larbi Sadiki, senior lecturer in Middle Eastern politics at the University of Exeter, said. “The local co-ordination committees seem to be bent on doing it their way, relying on local resources. Some suggest that they will not copy the regime, which is courting all kinds of outside forces to maintain its stranglehold on power.”

As the scale of the violence escalates, Syrian activists have supported international sanctions.

“While international community must continue to pressure for human rights observers to be let into Syria, the only acceptable intervention is sanctions,” opposition activist Amjad Baiazy, recently released from detention, said. “We need sanctions to dry out monetary sources for Assad so that he will stop military operations against Syrians.”

At the same time, opposition members are emphatic about the need to minimise the adverse effects of sanctions on ordinary Syrians. Targeting only the main sources of government revenue will reduce the impact on the wider population, but activists acknowledge it will be impossible to shield the public entirely from their impact.

“Syrian people will suffer a lot because of the sanctions, but they will suffer more if there are none, because sanctions will speed up the regime’s collapse,” Baiazy said.

As well as cutting off the resources funding President Bashar al-Assad’s military campaign, it is hoped that an economic squeeze on the oil industry – the country’s largest – will help cement anti-regime sentiment amongst ordinary Syrians.

“Syria is in the midst of a deep crisis,” Sadiki said, “so there are rising voices endorsing complete isolation of the regime, knowing well that this would adversely affect the populace and maybe galvanise it onto the streets to oust the Assads.”

However, experts also point to practical and political obstacles.

Russia, for example, has so far used its Security Council veto to block sanctions against President Assad and his associates, and is likely to block other economic measures.

Even if the US used its weight to push for a UN resolution stipulating wide-ranging embargos, it is uncertain how much damage this would inflict on the regime.

“The issue that we are all struggling with is will sanctions work?” Dr Islam Qasem, an analyst at the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, said. “Sanctions are a non-comprehensive, but potentially devastating foreign policy instrument, implemented to target civilians and the regime at the same time. If we go ahead with them, all of us hope the regime will fall soon thereafter, minimising hardship on Syrians.”

Qasem predicts that the EU ban on oil purchases will put a strain on the Syrian economy in the short term. But the regime still has some 18 billion US dollars in its reserves, and countries like India and China may be eager to take oil that was previously destined for the EU, at a discount rate.

Meanwhile, European sanctions extend only to the import of oil to the EU economic zone, not to the broader trading activities of western-owned oil companies.

Given all the limitations, observers say sanctions-based measures imposed by western governments may prove largely symbolic, but still important.

“It is impossible for either side to go on with the existing situation,” Qasem said. “If the West does not impose sanctions, not only does it look like we don’t care, it looks like we are providing the hard currency necessary to finance the crackdown.”

In the end, the ultimate fate of the Assad regime is likely to turn on domestic developments.

“Assad is in a very difficult position,” Qasem said. “His only options are stepping down or fighting until the end, and the actions of western governments are almost irrelevant. He knows that this is a matter of life and death and that it’s what happens inside Syria that will determine it.”

Zoe Holman is a regular IWPR contributor.

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