ISW in Brief: Sanctions on Syria Achieve Limited Success

December 1, 2011
On Sunday, the Arab League approved sanctions on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including banning travel, freezing assets, and terminating its business with the Syrian central banking system.  In May, the U.S. and E.U. embarked on a program of escalating sanctions in an effort to convince the Assad regime to end its violent repression of Syrian protestors.  Despite these efforts, the violence escalated throughout the summer, before an early-November Arab League initiative offered a series of agreements intended to deescalate the crisis.  Yet, the Assad regime’s continued violence throughout November proved its intransigence towards the Arab League’s plan, leading the League to suspend Syria’s membership and impose its own sanctions on the regime.
The isolation of increased sanctions is unlikely to fundamentally affect the regime’s calculus.  Sanctions by the United States, the European Union, and increasingly harsh positions taken by Turkey and the Gulf States have not demonstrably changed the Assad regime’s stance.  Because the regime can still count on support from a number of key allies, it continues to defy international standards and demands.  Furthermore, the regime’s continued violent behavior derives from the fundamentally sectarian nature of Alawite political and military power in Syria.  Ba’ath Party rule was built on the basis of heterodox Shi’a minorities in Syria, and the Assad dynasty has consolidated minority control of the military over forty years in power; the regime has every reason to expect retaliation from a new Sunni government if they step down.
The growing economic pressure targeting Syria’s economy and leadership has not forced the Assad regime to change course.  Since it passed a series of sanctions in mid-May, the E.U. has targeted more than 70 individuals, a variety of institutions supporting the regime, and the central banking system.  Significantly, the E.U.’s import ban on Syrian oil has already reduced oil production by as much as 75 percent in an industry that recently represented up to one-third of the Syrian economy.  Sanctions by the United States targeting a number of key regime individuals and entities have not achieved as much as those imposed by the E.U., due to the broader pre-existing measures the U.S. has levied against Syria since 2004.  Turkey has reversed its once-cordial relations with Assad, blocking weapons shipments from Iran to Syria.  This week Turkey announced plans to introduce sanctions against Syria; although Ankara’s sanctions package is unlikely to end trade altogether, trade between Syria and Turkey has already fallen sharply since the beginning of the crisis.
The Arab League has been reluctant to censure other member states since its inception, but Qatar, with Saudi backing, has taken an active stance against Syria through its leadership position in the League. Qatar recently showcased their eagerness to directly influence outcomes during the Libyan Revolution.  The Gulf States’ interests may be more at stake than they were in Libya in the context of ongoing efforts to check growing Persian influence in the region following U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq.  When he announced the League’s sanctions decision, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani did not rule out military intervention in Syria: “We're trying to prevent any foreign intervention in Syria, [but] if the Arab countries do not deal in a serious way with this problem, then a foreign intervention … will be the answer."
Staunch support from allies who are strategically committed to the Assad regime’s survival, however, has in many ways limited the impact of these sanctions. Iran’s continued influence in Syria is central to its regional ambition to control an arc of territory running from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon. Despite Iran’s tempered public support for Assad, it is likely committed to ensuring the survival of the regime.  By the same token, Lebanese Hezbollah continues to rely on the Assad regime as a conduit for Iranian support and assistance.  Iraq’s Shia-led government, concerned about emboldened Sunni tribes in western Anbar Province, and probably encouraged by Iran, has also continued to support Assad.  Russia remains a staunch Assad ally, concerned with losing lucrative  E.U. petroleum and arms trading relationships.  Russia relies on the port of Tartous for Mediterranean naval basing, a fact that Russia underscored by announcing plans to send an aircraft carrier group there last week.  
Aside from international factors influencing the effectiveness of sanctions, domestic factors also limit the effects of economic pressure on the Assad regime’s decision-making.  From the beginning of the uprising, Assad did not believe that introducing comprehensive reforms was a viable option. Representative government in Syria would lead to the regime’s downfall because Ba’th party rule represents a narrow faction of Syrians.  The regime feared its downfall would invariably lead to the prosecution of the former elite for crimes against humanity over its 40 years in power.  As Dutch diplomat and Syria scholar Nikolaos van Dam has noted, “Within such circumstances, it would be unrealistic to expect the president and those around him to step down.  Bashar al-Assad was never going to sign his own death warrant.”
The Arab League’s decision to impose sanctions probably represents the penultimate step in escalating economic pressure on the Assad regime—the only additional economic measure that is likely to pass is a program of broader sanctions from Turkey.  When economic levers are exhausted, the logical next step will be military intervention, probably in the form of establishing a buffer zone along Syria’s border with Turkey, as France proposed last week.
As the leverage available to the international community through economic sanctions reaches its limits, the states opposing the Assad regime will be forced to look elsewhere for an effective way to pressure Assad to leave power that does not include the gallows or the International Criminal Court.  The Assad regime has been backed into a corner, and unless its opposition is able to design an effective exit strategy for Assad, the regime will continue to lash out against its people.  In response, those within the international community opposing the regime are likely to explore their military options.
Joseph Holliday is a Senior Research Analyst at ISW.