A Decade of Western Sanctions Fails to Deliver Change in Syria

The United States Congress has introduced harsher sanctions against the Syrian government in response to the Arab League’s (AL) readmission of the nation into its ranks, sending a warning to regional allies who have normalized diplomatic and economic ties with president Bashar al-Assad. Just days before the Syrian leader appeared at the AL summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in May, the US House of Representatives rushed to pass the Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act of 2023, which if endorsed by the Senate, would extend the sanctions to 2032 and broaden the scope of potential targets. This proposed legislation builds upon the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019, which already imposes sanctions against individuals or entities involved in conducting business with the Syrian government, and follows a recent round of sanctions aimed at curtailing the regime’s alleged involvement in illicit drug trading. These sanctions are part of a decade-long effort by the US government to deprive Assad’s regime of the resources necessary to sustain its brutal war and to pressure the government into transitioning to democracy. 

While the US led the charge for sanctions against the Syrian government in the aftermath of the violent crackdown against protestors in 2011, the European Union soon followed suit in 2013. However, the recently held EU-sponsored Brussels Conference on ‘Supporting the Future for Syria and the Region’ underlined the Assad regime’s persistent failure to take meaningful steps towards a credible democratic transition in alignment with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015). But with sanctions by EU and the US, likely to continue and Assad showing no signs of handing over power, will they really make a difference? 

EU and US sanctions leave little incentive for Assad to negotiate 

For more than a decade US and EU sanctions have stood as a resolute political response to the acts of brutality against civilians perpetrated by the Assad regime. Yet, the impact of these sanctions has proven frustratingly limited, as the Syrian regime has shown a capacity to adapt to mitigate the direct consequences of sanctions and thus have failed to compel Assad into meaningful negotiations. First, sanctions have not been integrated into a strategy that prioritizes regime change and a democratic transition and, second, the Assad regime has managed to evade sanctions by receiving support from non-Western powers, particularly Iran and Russia, who have capitalized on the diminishing influence of the US and the EU on the regime. Consequently, the UN-led efforts for peacemaking in Syria aimed at achieving credible and inclusive governance in Syria have become dependent on actors like Russia to exert pressure on the regime. However, these actors, driven by their support for Assad, do not prioritize meaningful political change. This dynamic leaves little incentive for the Assad regime to engage in good faith at the negotiation table, further complicating efforts for democratic transition in Syria.

Assad’s regime adapts as Syrian civilians suffer

Between 2011 and 2014, US and EU sanctions were implemented with the goal of achieving accountability and political reform in Syria. High-ranking government officials, security personnel, and military officers were targeted through asset freezes and travel bans for their involvement in violence against civilians. Additionally, a full arms embargo was instituted, and the EU suspended cooperation with the Syrian government. However, the effectiveness of these measures was compromised due to two factors. Firstly, targeted individuals did not possess significant assets or bank accounts in Europe and the US, limiting the impact of asset freezes. Secondly, the regime bypassed the arms embargo by relying on its alliance with Russia for weapons procurement. Consequently, the intended pressure on key political figures to bring about political reform was significantly undermined.

As it became evident that the regime was continuing to enforce repressive measures, the rationale behind sanctions shifted towards demanding a change in the regime itself. New rounds of sanctions were implemented to dismantle the regime’s economic foundations and weaken its main pillars, by targeting foreign business partners and  allies. By 2014, the regime had already lost significant territory to rival factions and the Islamic State. State-controlled companies and financial entities were primarily targeted at this stage, leading to a deteriorating economy and unintended consequences for the Syrian population. Sanctions exacerbated the rising cost of living, resulting in decreased private-sector imports and exports, particularly impacting small and medium-sized enterprises, while also benefiting illicit networks operating in the black market. Syria’s sovereignty was eroded, and external support became unavoidable to address the economic destabilization.

Russia, Iran, India and China step in to fill the void

The West’s severing of trade ties with Syria created a void that paved the way for new alliances with actors who did not sanction the regime, which inadvertently strengthened the regime’s capacity to bypass the impact of sanctions and shifted power dynamics in Syria. Countries like India and China stepped in with economic and technical cooperation agreements, while Russia and Iran capitalized on the loss of Western influence to increase their economic leverage and assert their interests. The EU and the US found themselves with diminished influence.

Internally, the Syrian regime employed tactics such as altering vessel names and utilizing shell companies to evade sanctions. This evasion led to the emergence of new warlords and business elites aligned with the regime, benefiting from control over smuggling routes and creating economic opportunities that bypassed sanctions.

Meanwhile, security and military actors maintained coercive control over society, exacerbating the dire economic situation for businesspeople and ordinary citizens who lacked the means to mitigate the impact of sanctions. Thus, the Syrian regime has remained resilient despite sanctions.

From 2015 onwards, the regime recaptured territory with the help of Russia’s military intervention, making regime change increasingly unattainable and shifting focus towards a UN-facilitated political solution. The Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act aimed to counterbalance Russian influence, but the regime’s adaptability, support from allies, and network of business figures and warlords allowed it to weather the storm. As of 2023, regional dynamics and the wave of normalization may provide the regime with increased opportunities to circumvent sanctions and obtain reconstruction support, further strengthening its resilience and prolonging its survival.

Battle for influence affects UN-led mediation process 

This major shift in power dynamics has affected the UN-led mediation process. Subsequent Special Envoys have urged for a unified strategy among major powers and relied on external patronage to exert pressure on national parties to enter negotiations. However, this unified strategy never materialized, and the gradual loss of leverage from Western nations diminished their ability to drive regime change. As actors more aligned with the regime and uninterested in democratic reforms have gained influence, the ability of mediators to push the regime toward negotiations has become severely limited, and their mandate focused on a democratic transition become more challenging to negotiate. The growing influence of Russia and Iran in the country and the resulting dependence of mediators on them to compel the Syrian regime to act, has resulted in a marked shift away from governance and democratic transition to less politically sensitive changes, such as constitutional reform. The current emphasis on the Constitutional Committee in Syria, which originated from the Astana peace process sponsored by Russia, Iran, and Turkey and was integrated into the UN framework, reflects how these dynamics are shaping the UN-led mediation process.

Powerless sanctions with unclear objectives   

While sanctions could serve to support the UN-led mediation efforts in Syria by integrating them into a broader strategy that incentivizes negotiations, targets the regime’s external networks, and minimizes the impact on civilians, they have fallen short of their intended goals of accountability and political change. 

Several limitations have compromised the effectiveness of sanctions in pushing the regime to the negotiation table. Firstly, they have not fully accounted for the regime’s dynamic survival capacity and have not strategically outlined incentives to crack the loyalty of those sustaining the regime from within. They punish without providing a way out. Additionally, sanctions have not effectively targeted external sponsors. Even if the Caesar Act provides a framework, vast networks of external supporters have been left untouched. Secondly, the lack of international coordination and a unified strategy among sanctioning states has weakened their collective impact. Not only there are some differences between the design and implementation of the EU sanctions, these actors have failed to coordinate data integration for maximizing the sanctions’ impact. Thirdly, there have been glaring oversights and inconsistencies in data collection, target selection, implementation periods, and the exclusion of publicly known perpetrators of human rights abuses. 

Furthermore, sanctions have failed to incorporate effective measures to alleviate unintended adverse consequences on the Syrian population. This oversight has led to growing hostility among the people while providing the regime with a convenient excuse to legitimize itself and deflect blame in the eyes of the Syrian people by propagating accusatory messages to the West.

This decade of mismatched objectives reveals deeper shortcomings in the West’s approach toward Syria as a whole. The failures of Western sanctions highlight the absence of a comprehensive strategy going beyond these immediate measures and raises questions about whether Syria and Syrians were ever truly a priority and whether sanctions have been more of a political statement than a concerted effort to remove a government with oppressive policies. 

Ultimately, one fact remains evident: sanctions are merely a tool that must be integrated into a broader political strategy. When implemented effectively, sanctions can contribute to creating incentives for engaging in negotiations, cracking Assad’s loyalist circles, and enhancing the leverage of the US and EU in shaping desired outcomes. However, it is essential to integrate sanctions into a broader strategy that includes a range of complementary tools as they have proven over the past decade ineffective in bringing about meaningful political change in Syria. 

Jusaima Moaid-azm Peregrina is a Syrian-Spanish scholar and researcher at the University of Granada in Spain, who teaches Comparative Politics and Political Systems and Regional Dynamics in the Middle East. Her research focuses on international mediation and political change processes, civil society inclusion, and women’s political participation, with a particular emphasis on Syria. She is currently co-leading a research project on women’s inclusion in Syria, Libya, and Yemen.

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