The below post originally appeared on the Connect U.S. Fund’s blog and can be found here.
Over 3,500 people have been killed in the past six months by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s security forces. Over 100 were killed this week, despite Syria’s ostensible agreement to the Arab League’s proposal for a peace deal. Thousands have been detained. Torture of detainees is rampant, as documented extensively by Human Rights Watch and others.
As violence in Syria escalates, governments have stepped up to their responsibility to isolate the regime and to try to bring the violence to a peaceful resolution. The U.S. government imposed sanctions against Syria long ago, and is now seeking to strengthen those sanctions. In order to provide additional pressure on non-U.S. companies, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand introduced legislation earlier this year that would provide penalties in the United States for any foreign company that continues to operate in Syria’s petroleum sector. The bill has twelve co-sponsors and is gaining momentum in the Senate.
The European Union finally, on November 15, bowed to international pressure and enacted its own tough sanctions. These sanctions are significant, as Europe consumes fully 95 percent of all of Syria’s oil exports – and the oil industry makes up nearly 30 percent of Syria’s national budget. Disturbingly, throughout the past several months’ escalating violence, European companies Total and Royal Dutch Shell have continued to pump Syrian oil. Now, the combination of EU sanctions that will prohibit oil exports to Europe, and more importantly, the Syrian regime’s recent inability to make payments to Shell, Total, and other firms pumping Syria’s oil, have significantly slowed and could put a halt on operations, for the moment. If the U.S. sanctions legislation passes, additional leverage can be used to pressure companies continuing to do business in Syria to cease providing income to the Assad regime.
Assad’s neighbors in the Arab League have also finally decided to take steps to deal with his regime. The Arab League suspended Syria from the organization and gave its government three days to halt the violence and accept an observer mission or face economic sanctions. Assad’s forces went on a killing rampage in Homs immediately after this announcement. Trying hard for restraint in the face of this jab, the Arab League continues to hope a mission can take place this week; but they may soon be forced to make good on the threat of sanctions. Syria’s other neighbor, Turkey, has gone straight to an assessment of what sanctions it can implement, including possibly cutting off electricity supplies to Syria.
Cutting off Assad’s economic lifeblood is working, but more needs to be done to stop the flow of money that supports the regime’s continued purchase of weapons. In a piece in Foreign Policy, Stephen Starr has noted projections that Syria’s economy will shrink by about 2 percent this year. Tourism, worth about 12 percent of GDP, has ceased completely. Deposits in Syria’s private banks declined as much as 18 percent in third quarter of this year, according to figures released by the Damascus Securities Exchange. Assad’s past support from Syria’s business class surely cannot withstand an economic meltdown; and as this support wanes, the question is only whether the regime’s last days will witness protracted violence, or a peaceful transfer of power.
The Arab League and Turkey need to move quickly from talk to action, and impose sanctions on Syria. Most importantly, the international community now needs to turn collectively to the Russians to stop supplying arms to Assad. Diplomatic pressure is important; but as Russia prepares to take the international stage as host of the 2014 Winter Olympics, a little tough talk about the ramifications of supporting a rogue regime may not hurt, either. Taking away the money that Assad needs to buy these weapons is a critical step to stopping the terrible violence; swaying Russia from its continued support for Assad will be vital to any hope for a long term, peaceful resolution.