Opinion

Seize the sanctions moment in Syria

President Assad's continued violent repression of protesters, including shelling of the port city Latakia, makes now the moment for the UN Security Council to impose harsh sanctions on Syria.

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When the United Nations Security Council meets on Thursday to discuss Syria, it should seize the moment to impose multiple sanctions on the Assad regime and its network of support. Such measures would be consistent with past council sanctions aimed to degrade a regime’s ability to kill innocent civilians.

Strong coercive action is now warranted in light of the indiscriminate shelling of citizens in the port city of Latakia by naval gunships that began Saturday. Repression of predominantly nonviolent protestors continues even after various diplomatic missions and significant regional condemnations of the past week failed to persuade President Bashar al-Assad to end his assaults. Indeed, the Security Council’s Aug. 3 condemnation of the violence has not swayed Mr. Assad.

If the council fails to invoke sanctions, that task falls immediately to a broad coalition of UN members – including reluctant economic partner Turkey – led by the United States and the European Union. They must bring on harsh sanctions, including against Syrian oil and gas, that strengthen and expand significantly those they have already imposed.

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Nations that may disagree with deploying sanctions (Russia, most likely) can argue – correctly – that such punishments have never toppled a determined, repressive dictator. But that should not be the goal of multilateral sanctions.

Rather, an intense and coordinated array of coercive measures as outlined below, aims to generate greater financial hardship deeper into Assad’s support network. They would constrain his ability to pay and reward those engaged in the attacks, and disrupt the flow of ammunition and weapons available to his security forces.

Such sanctions have led to severe constraints on Muammar Qaddafi’s firepower and to defections of Libyan elites. They also have helped to protect some civilians in internal wars in Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

Why sanctions could work in Syria

In this particular case, sanctions have a heightened probability of eroding the repressive capabilities of the government. First, economic deterioration, lack of access to foreign banks, and travel restrictions create new conditions whereby internal actors in Syria will begin to weigh more directly the costs against the benefits of remaining tied to the regime.

Second, the Syrian armed forces are becoming overstretched geographically and can be vulnerable to supply interruptions.

Finally, because the domestic opposition appears beyond being cowed into submission, protesters will draw added strength from these actions taken by the international community.

The sanctions that must be imposed include diplomatic, travel, financial, weapons, and commodity restrictions.

To maximize the isolation that Assad’s actions warrant, all embassies in Damascus should close their doors and formally withdraw their ambassadors.

A new round of financial and travel sanctions that extends to a wider circle of Syrian ruling elites must now include the top commanders of the armed forces and specialized security units. As has been the case with Iran, for example, complete armed forces units might be designated for sanctions on their institutional and personal assets.

In particular, the US Treasury can move beyond its targeting of the national mobile phone company and the main commercial bank to other businesses and mid-level banks. Europeans seem to be moving in this direction as well. Also, ensuring that the more than three dozen commercial air carriers that service Syria suspend their flights indefinitely would be particularly biting.

A key to the success of such sanctions sticks must be the explicit offer of the carrot as well. That is, it must be clear to those who are the targets of sanctions that they can avoid or reverse being designated if they defect from their positions and disavow loyalty to Assad.

Sanctions targets: arms, oil, gas

A full arms embargo must be declared, despite the challenges that presents to effective enforcement given the illicit flow of weapons from Iran and other over-land suppliers. Knowing these dilemmas, those imposing the sanctions must be ready to “name and shame” entities and nations that continue to supply weapons, ammunition, and replacement parts, as well as technological expertise to the Syrian military.

Finally, whether at the council level or as is already being formulated in legislation pending in the US House of Representatives, trade and commodity restrictions aimed at oil and gas development must be forthcoming. These measures will take two to three months to really take hold, but their impact will be severe over time despite Syria’s lesser share of the global market in these goods. Oil and gas are among Syria’s main exports.

The concerted brutality of the attacks that have marked the Muslim observance of Ramadan indicates that the Assad government considers its survival tied to the complete repression of the protests, whatever the costs. Calling merely for Assad to step down or to declare his rule illegitimate will not increase those costs.

Short of direct military force, only coordinated, severe, and timely sanctions will degrade the regime’s economic resources and firepower, spark defections of its supporters and, ultimately, undermine the success of its repression. Now is the moment for these sanctions.

George A. Lopez holds the Hesburgh Chair in Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute, University of Notre Dame. With David Cortright he is co-author of five books and over 30 articles on economic sanctions.

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