x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Sanctions are a blunt tool to influence Syria

Sanctions may help topple the regime in Syria, but they are an imperfect tool at best and if they are to be used, must be part of a more elaborate strategy.

Shortly after the anti-government rallies erupted in mid-March, US and European sanctions began to be levelled against the Assad regime and certain figures affiliated with it. But there have been no signs that these sanctions have been effective in curbing the brutality of the Baathist regime. The strongest economic blow to the regime came from within, as protests shackled the economy through boycotts, low-scale civil disobedience or simple protests.

Having said that, sanctions could weaken the regime if handled carefully. On Friday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stepped up pressure against President Bashar Al Assad by calling on arms dealers and oil exporters to sever ties with his regime. A weapons ban is obvious, but an oil embargo needs more consideration. The point is to pressure the regime, not to drive the economy into the ground at the expense of ordinary citizens.

It bears remembering that in the 1990s, economic sanctions against Saddam Hussein did not lead to his downfall. Sanctions have to be accompanied by other means of pressure, including support for the opposition - although opposition groups have yet to formulate a clear-cut vision for Syria.

And sanctions have not been effective when some choose to support the regime. In July, Kuwait provided 30 million Kuwaiti dinars (Dh403 million) worth of loans to the Syrian regime through the Arab Development Fund. That support is lessening: Kuwait has since withdrawn its ambassador from Damascus to protest the violence.

In Egypt, US pressure was effective because the military held power and wanted to defend its economic ties to America. Neither is the case in Syria. It will be difficult to drive a wedge between the regime and the military, simply because the military is not the most powerful security guarantor. The country is controlled by 17 powerful security departments, each headed by an Assad loyalist, and these units do not report to one another. They report to the Assads, Bashar and his brother Maher.

Over the years, the regime won the support of the middle class through economic incentives. Sanctions will hurt them, but there is little indication that groups that have remained silent so far will take to the streets.

The regime is becoming weaker, protesters are getting stronger and the opposition, despite its poor performance diplomatically, is becoming better organised. Sanctions alone will not topple the regime, but carefully targeted, they could help.