New sanctions on Syria risk empowering extremists
Last week, the United States announced a new round of crippling sanctions on Syria. The Caesar sanctions ostensibly take specific aim at senior government figures and seek to punish any entities that would do business with Bashar Assad’s government. These sanctions, it is claimed by American policymakers, could be lifted if certain conditions are met — namely, the government of Syria releasing its political prisoners and ceasing the bombing of populated areas, which is a likely reference to the current combat in the Idlib region. In other words, the government of Syria is expected to stop fighting the war. No mention is made of reciprocity on the side of the various rebel factions. What these policies come across as, however, are a kind of sour grapes by the loose international alliance that has lost its bid to topple Assad.
While the U.S. never made as energetic an effort to overthrow the Assad regime as regime-change enthusiasts wanted, it did join Turkey and the Gulf States in spending eight years in funding and sometimes training his opposition. The effort ultimately showed that Assad’s support base was both larger and more robust than his would-be overthrowers assumed. These efforts likely drew out the conflict, turning Syria into a proxy-battleground for a pan-regional conflict.
Many advocates of overthrowing Assad saw the effort as a useful drain on Russian and Iranian resources. Instead, Russia has been able to eke out a mild propaganda victory in the region by standing with its long-held ally in a fight against an opposition that has become infested with jihadist radicals. Whatever sacrifices Russia and Iran have made in the conflict, it certainly has not weakened their position in the Middle East compared to that of the U.S. Meanwhile, U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar still support al Qaeda-aligned non-state actors whose expressed goals are the eradication of sectarian minorities in Syria. Acting through these allies, the U.S. has already maximized the diplomatic isolation of Damascus.
Meanwhile, the bite of sanctions is felt disproportionately not on the direct targets of the sanctions, but rather the poorest and most precarious people in Syrian society. What the increasingly ruinous blockade placed on Syria is most likely to accomplish is a further heightening of extremism and radicalism — and not just within the borders of Syria. Already, it is the citizens of Syria who are feeling the adverse effects of these policies as the value of the Syrian pound plummets and the ability to transfer cash remittances back to the country from people working abroad has collapsed. No equivalent effect has yet to be observed among the upper levels of the government in Damascus, which will likely remain insulated from the economic effects now affecting most of its citizens.
The waves of migrants and refugees pouring out of the region will increase, spreading instability throughout not only neighboring countries but also European nations. This bitter harvest of NATO policy in the Middle East dates as far back as the invasion of Iraq and tied the fates of stability in U.S.-aligned European states directly to that of conflict-prone states in the Middle East.
To increase the economic pressure on Syria is to sabotage that nation’s rebuilding efforts. Right now, it is in the interest of global security and combating extremism that Syria be able to rebuild as rapidly as possible. With the area around Idlib the only major place held by rebels, Assad has effectively won the war. Attempts to undo this outcome through economic warfare will simply punish the Syrian people for being victims of circumstance.
Radicalism thrives in places where options of a better future dwindle. Before the civil war, Syria was a middle-income country. This is noteworthy as it had nowhere near the oil reserves nor access to global trade networks that some of its neighbors did. Downward economic mobility is often the largest indicator of antisocial behavior in a population. With a still-unstable Iraq next door to Syria and a poorly enforced border between the countries, some scattered Islamic State fighters in the region, and Lebanon (a significant Syrian trading partner) teetering toward instability, the new sanctions on Syria could have a much more negative impact than its planners intended.
Rather than seeking to punish the Syrian government in ways that will harm the average people in that country, it would be wise to seek an alternative diplomatic approach.
Syria has been an Iranian and Russian ally since long before the war, and U.S. policy doesn’t need to change this. Instead, Syria should be reintegrated into the international community in such a way as to open its opportunities for reconstruction and humanitarian aid. In so doing, this small and increasingly ally-dependent country will have not only better prospects for rebuilding in a way that lessens the outflow of refugees, but also allows it not to be surrendered entirely to Moscow’s domination.
A Syria that is more normalized in the trade and diplomatic policies of the rest of the world is one that can more rapidly recover from its long nightmare. It would also be a state where international criticism and standards of behavior would mean much more than they currently do, where such observations cannot simply be written off entirely as hostile criticism from countries invested in the government’s overthrow.