Sanctions are not a very good tool, against Bashar Al Assad or ever. But they're better than inaction and there are ways to make them more useful.
Sanctions aren't the only tools against Assad
Sanctions, we know by now, will not persuade Bashar Al Assad of Syria to change his ways. The measures approved yesterday by the Arab League, like previous EU and US sanctions, will not by themselves bring about changes to the regime.
Ordinary people will bear the brunt of sanctions in the short term, and the business community in the medium-term; the inner circle is well protected from economic hardship. The Arab League measures should slash Syria's trade with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but Syria's neighbours Iraq and Lebanon did not vote for the sanctions and may not enforce them vigorously.
As always, then, sanctions are a blunt and clumsy tool. But for the Arab League there are no really good options here, and doing nothing would be one of the worst choices. So the challenge is to make sanctions as effective as they can be. One requirement to do that will be for the Arab League to also find other ways to squeeze Damascus, including pressing Russia and China to abandon the Baathist regime.
The point is not to drive Syria's economy into the ground, hurting ordinary people. It would be useful to target sanctions by, for example, freezing the state and its leaders' assets, particularly in Gulf banks.
The Arab League can also play a key role in bringing opposition forces together. Coordination with the international community on crucial decisions must not be limited to the Syrian National Council. True, the Council is, so far, the most representative opposition body, but it excludes some major opposition forces, mainly the Damascus-based Local Coordination Committee.
The Arab League's November 12 resolutions included not only the threat of sanctions but also the possibility of recognising the SNC. The League can use the leverage this idea gives it with the SNC and other forces to bring them together before any recognition.
It has been often argued that Saddam Hussain survived sanctions for over a decade. But that comparison is flawed: in Syria the pressure comes from within too, and Syrians will tolerate some economic deterioration if the prize of regime change is in sight.
Still, wrecking the economy is not a solution. The opposition, the Arab states and the international community must demonstrate responsibility for what lies ahead, in part by developing economic rebirth plans for Syria's long-suffering people.