Stepping up Sanctions: Arab and Turkish Pressures on Syria

Pres­sure is mount­ing on Turkey to lead a poten­tial mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion to stop the blood­let­ting in Syr­ia. How­ev­er, sanc­tions by Arab states and Turkey on the regime of Pres­i­dent Bashar al-Assad could become an effec­tive pol­i­cy tool.


The Mus­lim Broth­er­hood (MB) is look­ing to Turkey rather than the Unit­ed States and Europe to inter­vene mil­i­tar­i­ly to stop the Assad regime’s vio­lent sup­pres­sion of a nine-month-old rebel­lion. In meet­ings with Turk­ish offi­cials, the leader of the MB, Moham­mad Riad Shak­fa, and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Syr­i­an Nation­al Coun­cil have urged Turkey to enforce a no-fly zone above Syr­ia and, if mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion becomes unavoid­able, they want Turkey to take the lead.

Turkey is already pro­vid­ing tac­it sup­port to the rebel Syr­i­an Free Army, which has a camp on the Turk­ish side of the bor­der and in recent days has staged more dead­ly attacks on Syr­i­an mil­i­tary tar­gets. Turkey has also allowed the polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion to use Istan­bul as a base.

Turk­ish Dilem­ma

Nonethe­less, despite Prime Min­is­ter Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increas­ing­ly emo­tion­al denun­ci­a­tions of the Assad regime, Ankara is find­ing it dif­fi­cult to step up the pres­sure on Syr­ia with­out risk­ing Turk­ish inter­ests in the short term. Turkey’s reluc­tance so far to impose sanc­tions of its own when the Arab League is about to step up to the plate, risks its los­ing the moral high ground it achieved in part by tak­ing the lead in con­demn­ing the Syr­i­an crack­down and demand­ing that Israel lift its block­ade of the Gaza Strip.

Erdo­gan has so far been long on rhetoric and short on actions, part­ly because of dif­fer­ences between the gov­ern­ment and the mil­i­tary. While Erdo­gan describes Syria’s cri­sis as Turkey’s “inter­nal prob­lem”, army chief of staff Gen­er­al Necdet Ozel recent­ly insist­ed that it was “pri­mar­i­ly the inter­nal prob­lem of that coun­try”. As a result, Erdo­gan, in addi­tion to hold­ing back on sanc­tions and drop­ping plans to cre­ate a human­i­tar­i­an buffer zone on the Turk­ish-Syr­i­an bor­der, has yet to ful­fill his promise to vis­it camps for Syr­i­an refugees in east­ern Turkey.

Turk­ish offi­cials fear that impos­ing sanc­tions, let alone overt mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion, could open Pandora’s Box with Syr­ia and its ally Iran; Tehran could be pushed to increase its sup­port for the Turk­ish Kur­dish Work­ers’ Par­ty (PKK) that has already stepped up its attacks on mil­i­tary tar­gets in south­east­ern Turkey. In return, Turkey would have to step up its retal­i­a­tion against PKK bases in north­ern Iraq and sup­port unrest in some of Iran’s more restive provinces such as East­ern Azer­bai­jan whose major­i­ty Tur­kic pop­u­la­tion resents Per­sian rule. All in all, the cri­sis in Syr­ia would risk becom­ing a region­al con­fla­gra­tion.

The Arab League’s new assertive­ness in Syr­ia offers Turkey a way out of its dilem­ma and could help increase the pain lev­el of sanc­tions to a degree that may bring Assad to the nego­ti­at­ing table. The Syr­i­an leader has so far reject­ed Arab calls for a halt to the vio­lence and has shown dis­dain for the League’s plan to impose sanc­tions of its own and tak­ing Syr­ia to the Unit­ed Nations Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil.

Wors­en­ing econ­o­my

Nonethe­less, Arab and Turk­ish sanc­tions would boost those already enforced by the US and Europe on Syria’s bank­ing and oil sec­tor; halt imports of non-oil prod­ucts from Syr­ia, which con­sti­tute the bulk of the country’s exports; shut down one of Syria’s last links to the inter­na­tion­al bank­ing net­work; and pre­vent its gov­ern­ment and busi­ness­es from open­ing let­ters of cred­it.

Oil pro­duc­tion is drop­ping as Syr­ia finds it increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult to find buy­ers for its 140,000 bar­rels of crude oil per day and has been unable to pay oil majors Shell and Total for their pro­duc­tion. As a result, petro­le­um prod­ucts such as diesel for heat­ing are becom­ing scarce and Syr­ia increas­ing­ly can­not foot its bill for imports. Syria’s state-owned oil com­pa­ny Sytrol last week can­celled a ten­der for the sale of 50,000 tonnes of fuel because of a lack of buy­ers. Swiss refin­er Petro­plus announced that it had replaced Syr­i­an oil with Iraqi prod­uct. Gov­ern­ment and pri­vate invest­ment more­over has come to a halt, tourism has evap­o­rat­ed, indus­tri­al pro­duc­tion is down, agri­cul­ture is imped­ed by mil­i­tary oper­a­tions and unem­ploy­ment has jumped to 25 per cent.

Chi­na has already expressed sup­port for the Arab League’s pres­sure on Syr­ia. Arab and Turk­ish sanc­tions would make it more dif­fi­cult for Rus­sia and India in par­tic­u­lar as well as West­ern com­pa­nies that sup­ply and main­tain Inter­net sur­veil­lance sys­tems in Syr­ia to spoil the game. The sanc­tions may not be enough for the regime to crum­ble, but they would be suf­fi­cient to force it to look for a polit­i­cal rather than a mil­i­tary solu­tion that could drag the region into a war.

More than sym­bol­ic act

To be sure, mak­ing Turk­ish and, even more so, Arab sanc­tions stick could be eas­i­er said than done. Banks in Lebanon, the pil­lars of the Lebanese econ­o­my, are like­ly to be reluc­tant to apply the sanc­tions, argu­ing that they would have to vio­late the country’s strin­gent pri­va­cy laws. The gov­ern­ment is unlike­ly to want to rock either its eco­nom­ic boat or rela­tions with its big broth­er neigh­bour.

Nev­er­the­less, the chances of Syr­ia becom­ing a rare case where sanc­tions work are enhanced by the fact that the planned sanc­tions enjoy the sup­port of sig­nif­i­cant parts of the pop­u­la­tion. They have, how­ev­er, so far failed to cre­ate a sense of uni­ty against a com­mon ene­my that is respon­si­ble for people’s mis­ery. In fact, it is Syr­i­ans opposed to the Assad regime that are demand­ing tougher sanc­tions and tougher actions. For once, tough sanc­tions applied by a major­i­ty of the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty could con­sti­tute more than a sym­bol­ic act and avert the risk of a mil­i­tary con­flict that esca­lates into region­al war.

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.