Arab League threatens sanctions on Syria (video)

The Arab League has given Syria an ultimatum: end the violence, or face sanctions. But can sanctions sway a government already under heavy pressure?

Abdeljalil Bounhar/AP
Arab League members, with from left to right at front, Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Morocco's Foreign Minister Taib Fassi Fihri, Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim and Egyptian's Nabil Al Arabi, president of the Arab League, are seen as they attend the Arab League foreign ministers meeting in Rabat, Morocco, Wednesday, Nov. 16.

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A day after the Arab League formally suspended Syria's membership, the regional bloc has thrown down another ultimatum: End the violence and allow international observers into Syria in the next three days, or face economic sanctions.

Qatari Prime Minister Hamas bin Jasim al-Thani said yesterday that the Arab League would not wait long to see if the suspension alone made a difference in President Bashar al-Assad's behavior, according to Bloomberg. “We shall stop wasting time,” he said. “If there aren’t any effective measures immediately to stop the killing and release detainees, sanctions will be imposed.”

Although Mr. Assad released more than 1,000 political prisoners on Tuesday, apparently in an attempt to dissuade the Arab League from suspending Syria on Wednesday, the Syrian Army made sweeping arrests once again today, according to the Associated Press.

But the violence is taking on a new form more akin to civil war than a one-sided crackdown. The Free Syrian Army, made up of defectors from the actual Army, has more than 25,000 officers and soldiers, according to Bloomberg. Members have started attacking Syrian military targets regularly, killing at least 34 government soldiers this week alone.

The US has heaped blame on the Syrian regime for the sharp turn toward civil war. US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Wednesday, “It is the brutal tactics of Assad and his regime in dealing with what began as a nonviolent movement that is now taking Syria down a very dangerous path."

But Russia took a harder line against defectors. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said all sides need to end the violence, according to the BBC. "This is already completely similar to real civil war," he said. "It is necessary to stop violence no matter where it comes from. It is an important thing because violence in Syria comes not only from government structures."

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There is speculation that with an Arab consensus, Russia and China – who have so far resisted international sanctions against the Assad regime – could be persuaded to agree to such collective action.

The US and European Union have already ratcheted up their sanctions on Syria since the uprising began and have been working to bring about UN-authorized sanctions as well.

The Associated Press reports that China's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Weimin, implied that China could support a UN resolution. “It depends on whether these actions will help to resolve the tensions in Syria and facilitate the resolution of disputes through political dialogue,” he said.

Syria has been suffering economically for months already – the International Monetary Fund projected that its economy will shrink by at least 2 percent this year and foreign reserves are dwindling, according to Foreign Policy. But the economic pain so far appears to have failed to bring about behavioral changes from the regime, or obvious defections from members of the business community – one of Assad's remaining blocs of support.

In his article about the economic climate, Foreign Policy's Stephen Starr paints a picture of Damascus businessmen and workers who are suffering severely and are close to losing their livelihoods, but are still too cowed by the government to call for an end to Assad's crackdown so that business can return to normal.

… The facts on the ground are irrefutable. The International Monetary Fund projected in September that Syria's economy will shrink by about 2 percent this year. Tourism, worth about 12 percent of GDP, has ceased completely. Employees in the huge and overburdened state sector have been asked by the authorities to "donate" 500 Syrian pounds (about $10) from their monthly salaries to help boost state funds. Deposits in Syria's private banks declined as much as 18 percent in third quarter of this year, according to figures released by the Damascus Securities Exchange, despite high interest rates meant to shore up bank coffers.

It is clearly fear of the country's security apparatus that concentrates the minds of many businessmen. "There is too much fear for any business leader to turn against the government," [said Yehia, the vice president and executive director of a major aluminum manufacturer.] "The security can get to whoever they want -- it doesn't matter how big the businesspeople are. There are no boundaries. It [turning against the regime] is just not going to ever happen."

Syria expert Joshua Landis writes that international leaders know that sanctions won't bring down the Syrian government and that there are other motivations at play: it is less "politically expensive" than military action and, if economic sanctions starve Syria to the point of a humanitarian crisis, the climate will be more amenable to an eventual intervention.

It is doubtful that sanctions alone will cause regime change in Syria. Economic deprivation and reduced government spending does not usually lead to regime change. It is hard to think of a Middle Eastern government that has been brought down by sanctions. Some of the countries that have faced sanctions for decades are Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Sudan. Of course Gaza has faced severe sanctions in an effort to bring down the Hamas government with very little success. What sanctions do very effectively is make people poor and hungry.

Starving Syrians is not the intention of US and European policy makers who imposed the sanctions. They continue to insist that Assad will step down due to sanctions. But what Arab leader has ever stepped down as a result of having his country sanctioned? As Albert Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results.”

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