US sanctions against Syria constitute risky strategy to increase domestic pressure on Syrian leader

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and those sanctioned alongside him are not believed to have assets in the US. (File photo)

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and those sanctioned alongside him are not believed to have assets in the US. (File photo)
US sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, like the recent indictment by the International Criminal Court of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, may be of more than only symbolic value.

Little changes really for Messrs. Assad and Qaddafi with the imposition of the sanctions and the filing of the indictment. Mr. Assad and those sanctioned alongside him are not believed to have assets in the US; and with Mr. Qaddafi entrenched in the Libyan capital Tripoli, there is little prospect of him being arrested in the near future.

While the sanctions and indictment contains messages for Messrs. Assad and Qaddafi personally, their real addressee may not be them but their political and military coteries. US officials hope that they will conclude that the only solution to the crisis in their countries is one in which the demands of the public for greater freedom and economic prospects are met.
Those hopes mean different things from Washington’s perspective. The Obama administration has made it clear that it sees the United Nations-sanctioned no-fly zone imposed on Libya as a building block in toppling the Libyan leader. As far as US President Barak Obama is concerned, there is no place for Mr. Qaddafi or his family in the shaping of Libya’s future.

Mr. Obama has yet to come to that conclusion in the case of Mr. Assad. To be sure, the sanctions imposed this week constitute a dramatic expansion of the pressure on Syria and the first time since Mr. Assad started to brutally crackdown on mass anti-government protests that the United States has targeted him personally. The European Union is likely to step up the pressure by adopting similar measures against Mr. Assad when EU foreign ministers meet on Monday.

Nonetheless, US policy towards Mr. Assad is still guided by the principle of better the devil you know than the one you don’t. By personally targeting Mr. Assad with its latest sanctions, the US is telling the Syrian leader that this could change if he continues the crackdown and fails to initiate reforms that would satisfy the Syrian protesters.

“The actions the administration has taken today send an unequivocal message to President Assad, the Syrian leadership and regime insiders that they will be held accountable for the ongoing violence and repression in Syria,” Acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen said in a written statement.

The US sanctions target in addition to Mr. Assad, Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Shara, Prime Minister Adel Safar, Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar, Defense Minister Ali Habib plus Abdul Fatah Qudsiya, head of Syrian military intelligence, and Mohammed Dib Zaitoun, director of the political security directorate.

The legal moves against Messrs. Assad and Qaddafi, despite the different messages they contain, signal an underlying strategy in advance of Mr. Obama’s expected explanation in a major speech on Thursday of US policy toward the Middle East and North Africa in the wake of the protests sweeping the region. They constitute a recognition that allied military force and backing for the Libyan rebels and mounting international pressure on Syria have so far done little to change the minds of Messrs. Assad and Qaddafi.

With the indictment of Mr. Qaddafi as well as his son, Saif al-Islam, and the head of Libyan intelligence, the Obama administration hopes that senior Libyan officials, concerned that they too could spend much of the rest of their lives fighting off legal charges, will either defect in greater numbers or even better remove the Libyan leader from power themselves. A best-case scenario in the case of Syria from Washington’s perspective would be his inner coterie forcing Mr. Assad to salvage his grip on power by embracing reform. If that fails, US officials hope despite uncertainty of who might succeed him that they will remove him from power.

Mr. Assad admitted this week that his security forces had made mistakes handling the protests, according to Al Watan. The paper quoted a member of the delegation that Mr. Assad was addressing as saying that some 4,000 police would receive training “to prevent these excesses” being repeated. Mr. Assad’s response is likely to cut little ice in Washington and Brussels if it is not backed by an end to the crackdown and the initiation of real reform that would ultimately reduce Mr. Assad’s power.

Human rights groups estimate that Syrian forces backed by tanks and heavy machine guns had killed some 700 protesters in recent weeks.

The US strategy is risky. While it may prompt some officials like the Libyan oil minister earlier this week to defect, it could well on a larger scale prompt the ruling elites of Libya and even more so Syria to rally the wagons.

Mr. Assad and his closest circle are likely to have taken heart from the opposition’s inability to this week organize a general strike in Syria in a bid to paralyze the Syrian regime’s economic underpinnings. The strike’s failure suggests that Mr. Assad continues to enjoy support in the business community and that his campaign of intimidation is producing some result.

Mr. Assad, putting on a display of confidence, claimed on Wednesday that the crisis in his country was almost over.

As a result, the US sanctions against Syria announced on the eve of Mr. Obama’s speech are unlikely to give much credence to the expected assertion by the US president that the United States is championing the protests across the Middle East and North Africa demanding. Mr. Obama needs to back up his words with actions. The elites of Syria and Libya, prompted by the sanctions and the indictment, taking the heft in their own hands, would go some way to giving substance to Mr. Obama’s position of himself and the United States as true champions of the winds of change sweeping the region.


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