Syria: The Limits of International Sanctions

Though well intentioned, American and European punitive measures directed at Damascus also have negative effects on the population. The time has come to adjust that.

As the war in Syria comes to a close, international sanctions imposed on the country continue to pile up. A new punitive arsenal from the United States will go into effect on Wednesday, June 17.

Baptized the “Caesar Act” in honor of the Syrian military photographer who exposed crimes perpetrated on an industrial scale in Bashar Assad’s prisons, these so-called secondary sanctions no longer target only Syrians, but also third-party persons and entities of all nationalities who support those in power. The goal of this new text is to increase Damascus’ isolation in the hope of leading to a transition to the rule of law.

The European Union, for its part, renewed its 2011 measures against Syria on May 28 in response to the bloody suppression of anti-Assad protests. Brussels’ blacklist is an inventory of all the killers, torturers, secret financiers and predatory businessmen that make up the Syrian regime. Banks, companies and state institutions are also under sanctions, as are entire sectors, such as oil, which are subject to embargo.

Leaving This Binary Debate Behind

For Syria and its allies, these restrictive measures resemble “state-sponsored terrorism.” On the other end, Americans and Europeans boast of a strategic system, aimed only at the Assad regime’s repression tactics and financing, coupled with humanitarian exemptions.

It is necessary to leave this binary debate behind. The unilateral lifting of all sanctions, on the basis that Assad won the war and that it is now necessary to resume communication with the leader of the country, would be a political error. The West has no interest in depriving itself of its main, if not only, leverage over Damascus.

But it is time to recognize the damage that these well-intentioned measures can inflict on a very hard hit population. This is especially true for the United States. Carried to its conclusion, the Caesar Act risks putting Syria under a potentially tragic economic blockade. It is up to humanitarian organizations to put a mechanism in place to gather and analyze the repercussions of this particularly aggressive legislation.

Nor is the EU free from blame. Its sector-specific sanctions and those adopted by the United States before the Caesar Act have created “a paralyzing effect.” Foreign economic actors are turning away from Syria due to the additional financial cost and administrative hassles involved in dealing with a potentially risky client.

Realistic Objectives

Importing computers or replacing spare parts in medical devices could now take months. Accessing the international banking system requires a wealth of ingenuity. The scope of humanitarian exemptions is limited to health care and food, and it would be beneficial to expand the exemptions so they include the rehabilitation of electrical infrastructure, schools and hospitals.

But, above all, if European and American sanctions are destined to be something other than a Pavlovian reaction or moral incantation, they must be accompanied by realistic objectives. Rather than demanding a political transition that is no longer plausible, Brussels and Washington should propose a certain measure of gradual reduction of sanctions in exchange for easily definable concessions, like the release of detainees. Diplomacy, like politics, should be the art of the possible.

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