By all indications, the end is near for Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad. This week, the Arab League put forward the best practical option for a peaceful end to violence in Syria – Assad’s retirement. However, by rejecting the Arab League’s call for him to step down and transfer power peacefully, Assad has virtually ensured a long and drawn out escalation.
The Arab League has done its best to give Assad a graceful way out. Its human rights monitoring mission was doomed from the start by Assad’s failure to provide monitors with meaningful access to information. The League’s call this week for a transition and peace talks was rejected almost before it was issued. As conditions deteriorate within Syria, it is only a matter of time before Assad’s internal base of support erodes entirely. With internal support waning, Assad will need to rely even more heavily on a small set of external enablers.
A Financial Times piece confirmed that international sanctions have had a “severe effect” on Syria. Now, the country’s Finance Minister has resorted to internal confidence-boosting statements suggesting Syria can go it alone as an economy, and survive without international trade. This is merely a rhetorical effort to shore up support for the regime that is quickly unraveling. As the economy continues its downward slide, Syrian moderates and business elite are less and less likely to be persuaded that they can survive economically with the Assad regime at the helm.
The United States government imposed sanctions against Syria long ago, and is now seeking to strengthen those sanctions to pressure non-U.S. companies doing business in Syria. New York Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer have stated they will introduce important new legislation, the Syria Human Rights Accountability Act, to shut down remaining channels of commerce with Syria. The European Union also enacted sanctions on Syria’s oil sector in late 2011, and should look to strengthen these measures. The Arab League suspended Syria from the organization and now needs to convince all its member states, including Iraq and Lebanon, to implement the sanctions.
Outside of the Arab League, Russia remains an important and dangerous holdout. Russia continues to directly enable Assad’s bloody crackdown on Syria’s citizens by selling weapons to the regime. This includes the sale of 36 combat jets with the ability to attack ground targets that was just announced yesterday. Given the scale and magnitude of the regime’s violence thus far, we must assume that these jets will be used to attack Syria’s own citizens. Russia is making a very bad gamble.
The world community should unite in urging Russia to stop all weapons sales immediately – and should be prepared to curtail business with Russia if the country does not comply with international consensus. Russia has made clear that they will prevent any action at the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions or an arms embargo. Ultimately, it will be imperative for the world community to convince Assad’s few remaining friends that the cost of doing business with Assad is simply too high.