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