Sanctioning President Assad — what can it accomplish?
Most importantly, it will help President Obama in his presidential campaign. He can stand as someone who acts firmly against Arab dictators. He killed Bin Laden and sanctioned Bashar al-Assad. He takes decisive action and stands with the Arab street and for democracy. This will serve him well in his campaign. It also temporarily hushes the chorus of right-wing critics in Washington who want to weaken Syria and end diplomatic relations with the regime. It also ends criticism that he has treated Syria with kid gloves while treating Libya with bombs.
Oddly, the sanctions against Syria’s top government figures come at a time when the regime is gaining control over the protest movement and suppressing dissent. The sanctions come too late to add momentum to the protest movement. They may prolong the movement but will not topple the regime.
They will add to Syria’s economic difficulties as the regime seeks to regain legitimacy in the future. The opposition failed to divide the Syrian army from the president as happened in Egypt. They also failed to provoke a confessional split in the army as happened in Lebanon. Sunni soldiers have not split from Alawis, despite all the talk about “shabbihas,” which is code for Alawis.
The fallback position of the Syrian opposition must be to stifle the economy and work for the ruin of the regime, so it can no longer pay the bills. These sanctions will help in a small way toward that end. Not clear to me is whether diplomats, senators, and heads of state can meet with President Assad while he is proscribed by Presidential order. The next logical step is for Europe to join in the same targeted sanctions and eventually for European trade sanctions. President George Bush urged Europe to join the US in imposing trade sanctions on Syria, but in vain.
David Ignatius argued in his Washington Post op-ed — “Bashar al-Assad’s Endgame: Can a Bloodbath Be Avoided?” — that “major nations conclude that [Assad’s] regime cannot survive.” He also writes that “The governments of France, Saudi Arabia and Jordan . . . are all said to have concluded that the Assad regime cannot survive” . . . and Turkey will not support Assad.
Who in the world do they think is going to unseat Assad? This is most perplexing. Western leaders will certainly get a weakened Syria and a more isolated Assad from these sanctions but not regime change. Obama gains. Opposition leaders get more support. Syrians will get poorer.
Joshua Landis is Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Read his blog Syria Comment at <www.joshualandis.com/blog/>. This article was first published in his blog on 18 May 2011; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.