Can Sanctions Bring Down Assad?

Sanctions will not bring down the government

It seems as though there is a new article everyday about how Assad is doomed in Syria with many claiming that sanctions alone will be able to bring down the Assad regime. In addition to some serious sanctions by the US the European Union recently announced a ban on oil imports/exports (though the ban will not take effect until October) to and from Syria. Such a ban will obvious hurt the Assad regime as the country exports nearly 150,000 barrels a day to Europe. But will these sanctions be enough to take down Assad without any sort of international intervention? Joshua Landis doesn’t think so:

In a discussion with Ausama Monajed, a leading activist based in London, I was assured that the opposition leaders on the outside believe that the regime will collapse with increased defections. They insist that Syrians must not turn to armed resistance or try to open up a military option. They believe that “a tipping point” will be achieved by defections and sanctions that will cause regime change without excessive violence. They argue that as sanctions begin to bite, merchants and military personnel will begin to bail out. This will bring down the regime. I still have a hard time imagining how this works. How do merchants bail out? If all Sunni soldiers defect, the army will be much diminished and its legitimacy for those who support it today will be eroded, but would the regime would collapse? Many may remain loyal and fight for the regime. If so, a counter military effort will have to be organized.

Landis is correct. Sanctions would certainly do a number to the regime, but they will not take down Assad. In fact, there is little evidence that the sanctions will do much at all to alter Assad’s behavior. Historically, economic sanctions are generally ineffective: in North Korea, Sudan and Iran, there was no change of behavior in response to the sanctions. Moreover, the sanctions on Syria are not universal, meaning that the Assad regime will be able to ‘to tap international trade and capital markets and find alternative suppliers of goods and capital.’ A UN report from 2000 concluded that sanctions theoretically change governmental behavior by punishing civilians who, in turn, pressure the government for change. The UN report decided this was nearly always ineffective and generally illegal under international law.

In Syria there is a mix sanctions targeting specific individuals – which are certainly punitive – and more broad, encompassing sanctions that arguably target the Syrian people. The targeted sanctions are punitive, but they are not enough to force Assad and his regime supporters from power. Likewise, the broader sanctions are likely to do major damage to the national economy and likely help to strip Assad of the support of some business class Sunnis to separate themselves from the regime. Yet with such a strong sectarian following and complete control of the military, sanctions will not be able to strip Assad of the means to put down the Syrian people.

Despite the past declarations of Syrians refusing foreign intervention, there is an active debate in the US about whether moving US resources from Libya to Syria would be a good idea. Alternatively, Amr Moussa – the former head of the Arab League and a potential Egyptian president – has suggested that the Arab League could effectively intervene in Syria. Personally, I can’t see President Obama agreeing to participate in an intervention in Libya (not after Libya, not against wishes of Syrians, not without authorization from UN) and an Arab League intervention would likely be both ineffective and regionally destabilizing (Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Iraq and Iran are either incapable to helping or will refuse and a predominantly GCC — see: Saudi-led — intervention could dangerously sharpen tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is actively aiding the Assad regime.)

In other words, the pessimist in me is reigning in regards to Syria. The international community is unlikely to resort to more than finger waving and sanctions, but neither of these will be enough to push Assad to the side. After the intervention in Libya there is virtually no chance that an effective intervention will be launched by the west or another group. Assad is in a great position to stay in power and, unfortunately, neither the Syrian people or the international community is poised to change that reality. After the fall of Qaddafi, the world’s attention is sure to turn to Syria, if only to watch Assad outlast the protest movements.

Photo from Kobason

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13 thoughts on “Can Sanctions Bring Down Assad?

  1. Sanctions won’t do anything. Look at North Korea or Iran. They’ve been under sanctions for years and they’re still around. The only ones who will be able to take down Assad are Syrians, if they can ever grow a collective backbone.

    1. I agree that sanctions won’t do anything – that is the point of the post. But to say that Syrians lack backbone is an obnoxious, misinformed and ignorant comment that cheapens the sacrifices that thousands of Syrian families have had to make due to killed or injured loved ones. I appreciate you reading the blog, but please respect those who are nonviolently struggling for their rights.

      1. The population of Syria is over 22 million people. How many of those people are out in the streets fighting for what they want? Tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands. Not the millions it will take to bring down the regime. Looking at it realistically, many many more will have to step up and do their part. Just telling it like it is.

      2. What does it mean to do their part? Get out on the streets? Stand up to the Syrian army? Take up arms against the Syrian army? Start an insurrection? If 10 million Syrians were out on the street would Assad step down?

  2. Do they want to change their country? Then they must do whatever is necessary. If they have to pick up a weapon to fight the Syrian military then that’s what they have to do. It wouldn’t be the first time a regime has fallen that way. Nothing will change unless people take action. And despots like Assad likely won’t be taken down without violence. There’s safety in numbers, at least that’s what people think, so the more protesters there are, the faster the uprising will grow. Syrians are going to have to rely on themselves because NATO probably isn’t coming to help. I think it’s a tragedy. There are many brave Syrians out there doing what they think is right but it’s all futile unless more people stand with them.

    1. Ok so you are saying that sheer numbers will overwhelm the government and force Assad to step down? Or are you saying that nonviolence won’t work? Either way, I think are mistaken. As for the numbers, Assad has enough support in the military and enough guns to stop 100,000 protesters or 15 million. As for the idea that the Syrians should start a violent coup, where are they going to get the weapons? the training? You seem to forget that Assad has bigger and more powerful guns and he is not afraid to use them.

      1. Nonviolence won’t work in the face of a brutal crackdown on the scale that is occurring. Syria’s military numbers around 650,000 and is scattered around the country. Assuming no foreign intervention comes to the rescue, I don’t see any other way they can succeed than by armed rebellion and mass military defection. If you have a better solution I’d be interested to hear it.

      2. I don’t have a better solution, which is exactly why I believe that Assad will be sticking around. There is the possibility for some military defections, but the majority of the military is Alawite and supports the Assad regime (out of loyalty or perhaps out of sectarian fears). Defections may happen, but not at such a scale that will take down the regime. Should the protesters take up arms, they will be slaughtered at a higher rate than they are now. They do not have training or sophisticated weapons. You are basically asking a group of poor farmers to take up arms that they do not have and face a powerful and determined modern military. How can that possibly end well.

        The difference between Syria and Libya is the military defections that will not happen in Syria. Qaddafi held his army together from fear; Assad by promoting Alawites and using sectarian fear to guarantee their loyalty. Libyan army commanders and soldiers were able to (and wanted to) defect in mass, allowing for the transfer of both weapons and military knowledge. This will not happen on such a scale in Syria. Advocating for armed insurrection in Syria is to advocate for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Syrians.

  3. I agree with you. But the Syrian people need to decide whether they want to spend the rest of their lives under the thumb of a brutal regime or take up arms and possibly die for a greater cause. The change they seek can only be earned with the blood of patriots. I’m aware that’s a tall order but it’s the only way.

    1. This is one of those easier said than done things – and it is much easier said for you who I assume, is not in Syria. And even then, I am sure that an violent uprising is not a good idea as it would inevitably lead to hundreds of thousands of dead and an excuse for the regime.

  4. If there is a violent rebellion across the country that failed then Assad would institute reforms, if he had any common sense, to prevent a future uprising. I believe this is the second one since his family has been in power. Anyway, I guess you and I come from two very different worlds with different ways of thinking. It was a pleasure discussing this with you. Maybe next time we can debate other hot issues,

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