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More Sanctions on Syria Government as Obama Calls for Assad to Step Down: How Will Gulf Countries Respond?

Sec. of State Hillary Clinton delivers statement on Syria. (photo: C-SPAN)


For months the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has been brutally cracking down on Syrian protests, which began on February 3 as part of what is known as the Arab Spring. The Obama administration has closely monitored the crackdown that has killed more than two thousand Syrians, frequently offering words of support to the Syrian people. Finally, the administration appears to have reached a point where the US can call on Assad to leave power.

President Barack Obama issued a statement on August 18. Suggesting the US has been “inspired by the Syrian peoples’ pursuit of a peaceful transition to democracy,” he declares President Assad is standing in the way of dialogue and reform. He notes pursuit of a democratic transition has been opposed by a regime that has instead chosen to imprison, torture and slaughter members of the uprising, apparently to squash it entirely.

The Administration announced sanctions that it hopes will disrupt the ability of the regime to finance more violence and outlines details in an Executive Order (EO) effective August 18. The EO requires “the immediate freeze of all assets of the Government of Syria subject to U.S. jurisdiction” and “bans U.S. imports of Syrian-origin petroleum or petroleum products.” The EO also bans US persons from any dealings with the Syria government.

Obama’s statement, however, does not indicate support for any “humanitarian intervention” that would maybe arm “the rebels” or opposition, like the intervention launched in Libya in March. Obama maintains the US “cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria.” The Syrian people, he added, have shown a “strong desire” to not have any “foreign intervention in their movement.” He said the US has heard this “desire” and will support all efforts of the Syrian people to bring about a democratic, just and inclusive Syria.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a statement to the media, described how the US has been using a combination of “words and actions” to further isolate the Assad regime:

Since the unrest began, we’ve imposed strong financial sanctions on Assad and dozens of his cronies. We have sanctioned the Commercial Bank of Syria for supporting the regime’s illicit nuclear proliferation activity. We have led multilateral efforts to isolate the regime from keeping them off the Human Rights Council to achieving a strong presidential statement of condemnation at the UN Security Council.

Sanctions have been one tool the US has been willing to rely upon in its effort to show support for the Syrian people. The US has a history of employing sanctions against Syria, which is why it has not been necessary for Obama to keep issuing EOs that sanction Assad’s regime.

A US State Embassy cable from December 2006 that was released by the media organization WikiLeaks contained a list of actions that could be taken to exploit “vulnerabilities” and further isolate Syria. One of the vulnerabilities involves Assad’s “inner circle.

At the end of the day, the regime is dominated by the Asad family and to a lesser degree by Bashar Asad’s maternal family, the Makhlufs, with many family members believe to be increasingly corrupt. The family, and hangers on, as well as the larger Alawite sect, are not immune to feuds and anti-regime conspiracies, as was evident last year when intimates of various regime pillars (including the Makhloufs) approached us about post-Bashar possibilities. Corruption is a great divider and Bashar’s inner circle is subject to the usual feuds and squabbles related to graft and corruption.  For example, it is generally known that Maher Asad is particularly corrupt and incorrigible.  He has no scruples in his feuds with family members or others.  There is also tremendous fear in the Alawite community about retribution if the Sunni majority ever regains power.

The action proposed to go after Assad’s “inner circle” involves sanctions:

Targeted sanctions against regime members and their intimates are generally welcomed by most elements of Syrian society.  But the way designations are applied must exploit fissures and render the inner circle weaker rather than drive its members closer together.  The designation of Shawkat caused him some personal irritation and was the subject of considerable discussion in the business community here. While the public reaction to corruption tends to be muted, continued reminders of corruption in the inner circle have resonance.  We should look for ways to remind the public of our previous designations.

Obama signed an EO on April 29 that placed sanctions on President Assad’s brother, Maher al-Assad. In 2008, Rami Makhlouf, President Assad’s cousin, had sanctions imposed on him by the US Treasury Department. (The designation is detailed in this diplomatic cable sent out on February 26, 2008.) And, in June of this year, the US Treasury Department issued a warning that Syrian officials, such as Makhlouf, might be trying to hide business transactions and store wealth outside of Syria.

There is reason to be skeptical about whether sanctions will help push Assad to leave power. While the impact cannot be worse than what has happened in Libya as a result of foreign intervention, sanctions were used during the Gulf War (1990-1991). Syrian economist and opposition supporter Samir Aita told FRANCE24 he believes these measures “play into the hands of the regime.” He asserts that Syria has been importing goods illegally since 2003, when limited sanctions were imposed and recalls the oil-for-food program was “largely bypassed” by Saddam Hussein’s regime, which led to massive suffering among the civilian population. He concludes, “Either the US has not learned its lessons from Iraq, or it has learned the lessons and is trying deliberately to make the country implode.”

Recall, on May 12, 1996, Lesley Stahl asked then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright about US sanctions on Iraq,“We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” To which Albright infamously responded, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.”

Clinton claimed the US would be prepared to “mitigate any unintended effects on the Syrian people” from the sanctions. What exactly could the US do if there were unintended effects? The US wouldn’t be in a position to reverse the sanctions. That would cede ground to Assad. So, if thousands and thousands of people are starving, if humanitarian aid cannot get to Syrians, if the squeeze on the commercial class doesn’t produce the outcome desired, what happens?

Appearing on Al Jazeera English, Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle East Politics of the London School of Economics, explained Syria exports around 4,000 barrels of oil a day. With French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Prime Minister Angela Merkel and UK Prime Minister David Cameron all signing on to efforts to force Assad to leave power, the sanctions should take a “big bite” out of the Syrian economy and have a real impact on the middle class. The middle class, Gerges said, has been missing from the protest. The Western powers may be hoping to tip the balance of power and induce a “silent majority” to join the opposition.

Gerges noted this recent move is part of organizing a broad-based coalition to isolate the regime and that today all eyes should be on Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to see what they do in response.

Regional powers forcefully opposing Assad may have a decisive impact while escalated opposition to Assad from Western powers, especially the US, is unlikely to provide the tipping point. Assad is used to being on and off and back on the list of countries that former president George W. Bush once termed the “Axis of Evil.” It deals with Iran, which is abhorrent to the US government. Assad can just escalate his use of military force in the face of Western condemnation but, if Gulf countries or regional powers jump ship, more of the power elite may peel off driving him to step down.



Hélène Michou, Middle East expert at the Madrid think tank FRIDE, writes about the recent responses to the brutal crackdown on protesters by the Gulf countries in an article on Deutsche Welle:

…[A]lthough the response from regional actors has been equally tardy, it was arguably more decisive: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain all recalled their ambassadors from Syria. In a region where states rarely lambast one another, wary of the pot calling the kettle black, reactions by the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council are significant.

It is to influential regional players such as Turkey and the GCC which the international community should turn in the hope of ratcheting up the pressure on Assad’s regime.

US and EU sanctions are an effective tool of Western public diplomacy, but their impact in this context is questionable: travel bans and asset freezes do not impede transfers of sums through more informal channels such as the ‘hawala’ system (informal value transfer system using a network of Middle East-based money brokers – the ed.).

Michou notes sanctions on Rami Makhlouf’s business empire have “done little.” She adds, in the context of previous involvement in Iraq, Libya and other Gulf states, the sanctions could be received as more “Western meddling” that could negatively impact the Syrian uprising.

Here is Gerges on Al Jazeera English discussing the sanctions:

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."