What US sanctions mean for Assad and Syria's crackdown

The US placed sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad yesterday for the first time since he took office. Now the EU may follow suit.

Benoit Tessier/Reuters/File
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad listens to questions from journalists in Paris, in this December 2010 photo. The United States will impose sanctions on Assad for human rights abuses on May 18.

The significance of the US decision to impose unprecedented sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not so much a financial blow, but rather a clear signal that the West is no longer willing to wait for him to make good on his promises of reform.

Mr. Assad was one of seven senior Syrian officials listed Wednesday on an executive order that subjects them to financial sanctions “to increase pressure on the Government of Syria to end its use of violence against its people and begin transitioning into a democratic system that protects the rights of the Syrian people," the US Treasury Department said.

It is the first time the US has sanctioned the Syrian president personally since he took power 11 years ago, although the Bush administration sanctioned the regime as a whole in 2004.

The Syrian regime had already lost the sympathy of the European Union, which last week imposed sanctions on 13 regime figures – but not Assad himself. The White House's move, however, suggests he may be included in a new set of EU sanctions reportedly under discussion.

The imposition of financial sanctions is unlikely to make any difference to a regime that believes it is fighting an existential struggle, however. Analysts say that for the revolt in Syria to gain further traction, it requires the political and even logistical backing of the international community.

The Obama administration’s executive order against Assad could be followed in the coming days by the adoption of a draft United Nations Security Council resolution proposed by Britain, France, and Germany condemning Syria for its crackdown. Russia vetoed the resolution recently, but may reconsider if the international mood swings firmly against the Assad regime.

Is Assad a thwarted reformer?

Analysts and diplomats have long been divided over Assad's true personality. Some regard him as an essentially decent human being whose reformist ambitions have been thwarted by the vested interests of top regime figures.

Those figures include his brother, Maher al-Assad, the head of the Republican Guard and Fourth Division presently in charge of crushing the two-month uprising, and his cousin, Rami Makhlouf, Syria’s über-oligarch who heads a vast monopolistic business empire.

Others, however, believe Assad is no different from his regime cronies and has strung along the West for more than a decade with insincere promises of reform and peace with Israel. If Assad does have reformist leanings, it did not prevent the regime crackdown on the opposition protest movement that has left nearly 900 dead.

Why US has reacted slowly

Washington has reacted slowly to the unfolding violence in Syria, mainly out of concern about what may follow a collapse of the Assad regime. The Assad dynasty has ruled Syria for 40 years with an iron fist, allowing little room for dissenting voices. The Syrian authorities have warned of sectarian unrest if the regime is brought down.

The opposition protest movement has proven surprisingly durable, but it is composed of disparate groups and still lacks a leadership cadre with sufficient appeal to ensure a smooth transition of power. According to diplomatic sources, a recent closed-door meeting in Washington between Syrian opposition figures and Obama administration officials and analysts was unsuccessful in establishing a transitional council.

Furthermore, the harsh suppression of the opposition on the ground risks causing protest fatigue and declining momentum. A call for a nationwide general strike Wednesday largely went unheeded.

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