The startling revelations of last week's report by Detlev Mehlis on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has set the stage for a significant United Nations Security Council debate. In response to the report's naming of five top Syrian political elites, including the brother and brother-in-law of President Bashar al-Assad, and a number of Lebanese intelligence officials as likely culprits, the United States appears poised to ask the Council to impose harsh economic sanctions on Syria.
A number of factors strongly suggests that Council members want to hold the perpetrators accountable for this terrorist act. But a US call for comprehensive and highly punitive sanctions that not-so-subtly aim at regime change in Syria will be counterproductive. This has less to do with whether the US could forge a political consensus for such action, and more with which types of sanctions actually work and which do not.
In the nearly 20 cases of UN sanctions since 1990, comprehensive sanctions have never toppled a leader, but only further impoverished the people of the targeted state.
By the late 1990s, concern with this negative humanitarian impact, most notably in Iraq and Haiti, prompted the Security Council to develop the more finely tuned mechanism of "smart" sanctions. Early indications are that the US and France favor this approach. Such a resolution should be encouraged as it focuses coercion directly on the individuals responsible for the illegal actions.
An effective response to the Mehlis report, then, would be to lock down the personal finances of those named in the report, to restrict their access to banking and commerce, and prohibit their international travel. An advantage of this sanctions policy is that the same actions can be authorized against those who harbor or support the alleged assassins, as well as those who fail to cooperate with the remainder of the investigation. This permits flexible targeting and aims equally at Lebanese and Syrians potentially responsible for the murders. These measures can be reviewed and adjusted when the final Mehlis report comes out in mid-December.
Smart sanctions work best when they are not aimed at punishment or isolation of a regime, but when they engage leaders constructively with the Council in remedying the conditions which give rise to the sanctions. In this case, targeted sanctions serve as the clear and credible stick, as well as a carrot (incentive), for those Syrian and Lebanese leaders not involved in the crime. These governmental elites need to be convinced that their compliance in bringing these murderers to justice will bring a lifting of the sanctions and the promised benefits of a return to normal economic life.
Smart sanctions have been effective before. The combined smart sanctions of the European Union and the UN brought down Slobodan Milosevic. The evidence shows that it was UN targeted sanctions, not the war in Iraq, that forced Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to renounce his weapons program and support for terrorist groups. And in a series of Security Council resolutions dealing with terrorism after 9/11, the international community has employed smart sanctions techniques to shut down terrorist finances and organizations.
To be sure, the US has legitimate security disagreements with the Assad government regarding Syrian support for Iraq's insurgents and other terrorist groups in the region. But these should be dealt with in some format other than a Security Council resolution about the Mehlis report.
Ironically, the US goal in UN sanctions on Syria should be to aim for less, in the form of sharply focused and narrow action, in order to produce more compliance by states and individuals who harbor wrongdoers.
• George A. Lopez, of the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame, is co-editor of "Smart Sanctions" and three other books on UN sanctions.