x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Syria shows that it can be influenced

Sanctions against Syria can alter the Assad regime's behaviour, but only if governments and companies honour them.

If there has been one constant in Syria since March, it has been that President Bashar Al Assad is not to be believed. What this has meant in practice is that despite promises to reform, the president and his men have continued to order the killing of unarmed civilians.

As recently as last month, before the Arab League suspended Syria, the defiant president struck a familiar tone when he told Britain's Sunday Times: "Syria will not bow down" to pressure.

So it was something of a surprise this week when the Assad regime did just that. On Monday the foreign ministry said Syria's government was responding "positively" to an Arab League plan to end its country's crisis and allow foreign monitors. What changed?

Internally, nothing. The Assad regime's words have not reflected reality over these eight months of unrest, especially when it comes to pledges to end the violence. Hours after the foreign ministry's announcement, activists in the central city of Homs said dozens of people had been abducted and killed by Alawite militias. Since March, over 4,000 people have died, according to the UN.

But this week's verbal about-face suggests that economic pressure could help to moderate the regime's actions. As the Syrian analyst Muhammad Ali wrote in these pages yesterday, Syria is in deep economic trouble. It is only a matter of time, in some analysts' view, that Damascus sees that there is no other option than to holster its guns.

But sanctions by the US, the EU and the Arab League will only be successful if governments and companies choose to honour them. Since April the US has imposed tough sanctions, but the US is a bit player in the Syrian economy. Far more important are European and regional states, from Turkey to the Gulf. And on this front, economic pressure has not been consistently applied. European oil majors are just now suspending operations. And Gulf state energy projects, including at least seven funded by the UAE, continue to operate.

Syrians have already suffered too much; clamping down on the economy even more will bring more pain. Shelves stocking imported goods are already beginning to empty and petrol pumps to dry up. But we have seen the consequences of inaction. Mr Al Assad is willing to pay any price in blood as long as he is in power. What we are seeing today is that economic pressure, more so than military, promises to end this debacle.