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EU Sanctions on Syria: Barely a Cautery on a Bloody Conflict

credit: EU Council

(B2) The establishment of a system of restrictive measures by the European Union against the Syrian authorities does not really work. For what ?

Faced with the first bombings in Syria, the Europeans set up the first rather timid sanctions in May 2011: an arms embargo (a classic) and a few heads of the regime. Very quickly, Bashar al-Assad joined this 'black list'. And the Europeans are moving on to heavier sanctions. Banks, luxury, oil... all economic sectors are affected in turn. The list of people subject to an asset freeze and a visa ban has been expanded. Today, it has nearly 300 blacklisted people and 61 entities (state agencies, companies, etc.).

A fraying of the device

This does not move the regime one iota. A few new names are added to the list from time to time, over the bombings... or government reshuffles in Damascus. This will be the case again on Monday, with the blacklisting of four new names (Four Syrians responsible for the chemical weapons program blacklisted). But it looks more like cautery on a wooden leg. A way for Europeans, and ourselves, to say to ourselves: we are not inactive...

The weight of sanctions

We can discuss the low or high effort of restrictive measures in the face of certain countries or certain conflicts. Faced with Iran, it worked, incontestably. But these sanctions were shared by much of the international community. Against Russia, it does not automatically play out as we would like. But this serves as a guide to the European desire to 'contain' Russian inclinations, which is already a lot. Faced with Syria, this is useless...at all. At most, it allows Europeans to remain united in the face of one of the most serious crises facing Europe, to tell themselves that they are taking action and that they are not contributing to the further aggravation of the conflict.

Five causes for the ineffectiveness of sanctions

Among the reasons for this lack of effects, we can identify at least five: two are within the domain of European responsibility and three others arise from the Syrian and international context.

1° The European sanctions system was very progressive, almost smooth, almost homeopathic at first. It only got worse late, when the internal repression already seemed to be taking the turn of a civil war.

2° By indicating from the start that we did not want to negotiate with Bashar and that we were cutting all diplomatic bridges, that we were hoping for a maximum of defections from the regime, which was the unacknowledged goal of European sanctions (at the start ), any loopholes have been eliminated.

However, these elements have a relatively minor impact compared to the other reasons relating to the Syrian-international context.

3° A system of sanctions has a certain effectiveness when the country is inserted in the international system, when it intends to keep a certain reputation, when there is a certain public opinion or business circles which can put pressure internally on the diet. In the present case none of these conditions are fulfilled.

4° A system of sanctions works when the European economic weight is sufficient to exert pressure and that the regime has no other way out, that the system of sanctions is if not international, at least that the regime is thus deprived of a number of his supporters. Hopefully, these sanctions measures are not shared by Syria's main allies (Russia and Iran) and neighbors (Turkey, Lebanon) but also by other world powers (China). In addition, the Syrian regime has been able to organize other supply channels, including in Arab countries (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Emirates), which are officially fighting Bashar's regime. There was thus a substitution of suppliers. In other words, the result is zero.

5° Sanctions are only an instrument, an incentive for negotiation. From the moment when the targeted party has only one political objective - to establish its power - and has all the military instruments in hand - which it uses and abuses - and the sanctioning power has indicated on several occasions that it does not want use this military instrument... the sanctions no longer had any effect.

After having drawn up this observation, we could say to ourselves: but what else can we do? Here we touch on the key point of the use of sanctions. Apart from the instrument of humanitarian aid, and that of the use of political declarations, the Europeans appear a little disarmed. The use of sanctions thus becomes an outlet for this lack of power, a placebo effect.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).

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