Why the EU's Sanctions Against Assad's Syria Will Backfire

On the Lessons Not Learned From 1990s Iraq

A pro-Assad rally last month. (Photo: Sana Sana / Courtesy Reuters.)

The political and humanitarian crisis in Syria has led to more than 3,500 deaths and sparked a wave of international reaction. In response, on Wednesday Turkey froze Syrian assets and lines of credit in the country. That followed the move last month by the Arab League, which temporarily suspended Syria's membership and, too, adopted a set of so-called smart sanctions aimed at a few specific trade sectors.

But these moves came long after the European Union sprung to action. As violence mounted earlier this year, in May the EU, backed mainly by France, Britain, Germany, and a number of northern European countries, imposed what could be deemed by some as "light" economic sanctions: restrictive measures on the Syrian leadership that included a travel ban on lower-ranking government officials.

In an effort to maintain relations, the EU left Syrian President Bashar al-Assad off the list. Later in the month, unsatisfied with the results, Brussels expanded its sanctions regime by adding the president, along with other key Syrian political actors, economic operators, and security officials. Still, the EU was careful to avoid negative humanitarian effects by going after only powerful players in the Assad regime.

More recently, however, European officials have ditched those concerns and moved toward heavy, or comprehensive, sanctions. At the end of August, the EU decided to ban the import of crude oil from Syria. The United States has followed suit, but the EU's decision is more damning since it imports about 95 percent of the oil that Syria exports. The impact has been significant: estimates put the loss in revenues for Syria at approximately $450 million per month. The EU also imposed a ban on new oil exploration and prohibited the minting of Syrian coins and banknotes in the EU; it also blacklisted Syriatel, Syria's national phone company. Finally, Brussels froze accounts linked to the Commercial Bank of Syria, which is the gatekeeper to some of Damascus' most important lines of credit.

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