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.

The EU argues that it is trying to stop Assad's brutal repression of demonstrators, force him to release political prisoners, to get Damascus to allow NGOs and the media into the country, and to launch a genuine and inclusive national dialogue. But these sanctions have been imposed with little regard for their impact on Syria's civilian population -- the population that the EU ostensibly wants to help.

Comprehensive sanctions have been considered misguided since the failures of the 1991 United Nations embargo on Iraq. That campaign -- which imposed restrictions on any trade with the country -- is believed to have led to the death of nearly 500,000 children. Cutting off Iraq from global markets prevented access to medicine, food, and the basic materials needed to maintain the country's infrastructure. Rather than targeting only the regime, comprehensive sanctions isolate an entire society. They undermine the economy, in the hope that, to avoid their own people's suffering, leaders will change their behavior.

Of course, in the case of Iraq, comprehensive sanctions achieved very little, if anything, politically. Despite the tremendous economic impact, Saddam Hussein remained in power because the sanctions wreaked economic havoc on the weak rather than undermined the country's leadership.

This pain-gain approach will prove ineffective in Syria as well.

First, middle-class citizens in Syria who work in the oil sector or depend on the welfare state ensured by the government will pay the price for comprehensive sanctions. Second, the policy does not discriminate between those who support Assad and those who are sacrificing their lives to fight him. Third, it provides the regime (and state-controlled media) with political ammunition to blame Western interventionism for the country's isolation and its economic misfortunes. Fourth, the decision to pursue heavy sanctions is likely to have Syria to look to other economic partners around the world, states that might turn a blind eye to human rights abuses.

Accordingly, the EU should realign its policy toward targeted sanctions. It should, with even more vigor and precision, go after Syrian decision-makers and nonstate entities whose actions are directly responsible for the violence. Gains may be slow in coming, but to continue bluntly tackling the whole of the Syrian economy, and in turn the entire society, will net a political loss. The bottom line is that comprehensive sanctions will not unseat Assad from power.

For example, the EU could target individuals that directly sustain Assad's hold on power, such as key members of the Baath Party and the People's Council. Specific measures would include financial sanctions (freezing their assets abroad, severing their financial transactions, seizing their property), economic sanctions (banning luxury goods), and travel restrictions (refusing to issue visas to travel to and through EU countries). Targeting party members has worked well in other situations, such as in Zimbabwe (beginning in 2002); the EU adopted sanctions on leading members of the Zimbabwean regime, including members of the ruling party, the Zanu-PF. Some of the listed regime members were directly affected. The EU has already targeted a number of Syria media channels in Syria, but more can be done, such as targeting the owners of government-controlled channels and newspapers. Members of the judicial system who are cooperating with the regime, including government loyal courts and judges, could be targeted as well.

The EU's misguided approach is all the more baffling because smart sanctions are working effectively against Iran right now. They are denying the regime specific types of technologies that could contribute to the development of a nuclear program: telecommunications equipment designed to withstand transitory electronic effects arising from a nuclear explosion and catalysts containing platinum, palladium, or rhodium that can be used for the production of heavy water. This type of sanction is successfully slowing down the realization of the nuclear program without affecting the daily lives of the broader Iranian public. 

Brussels gave in to temptation to show its international muscle under the mistaken belief that supposedly stronger sanctions are more effective. This is not the first time it has made this mistake. With Sierra Leone, the EU targeted the ports of Abidjan and San Pedro with sanctions that were a de facto comprehensive embargo on the country.

Any successful sanctions strategy will have to be accompanied by an array of EU policies that include positive incentives for good behavior. Assad should be offered a way out of the crisis, as well as the promise that compliance would be accompanied by a substantial package of economic incentives for any new democratic regime that takes his place. There is still time to adjust and correct the West's approach -- that is, before it does more harm than good.

 

  • MIKAEL ERIKSSON is the author of Targeting Peace: Understanding UN and EU Targeted Sanctions. FRANCESCO GIUMELLI is the author of Coercing, Constraining and Signaling: Explaining UN and EU Sanctions after the Cold War.
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