The Syrians Are on Their Own - Sada
Following their Security Council veto against a new Syrian resolution on October 4, Russia and China have emerged as villains who, according to US ambassador the United Nations Susan Rice, “would rather sell weapons to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people.” And while Syrian opposition activists agree and burn Chinese and Russian flags in protest, the Syrian regime ponders publicly adopting the Ruble and the Yuan for what remains of the country’s international trade. Criticism of the two countries’ veto obscures the inconvenient truth that the blame for international inaction is not theirs alone. Rather, the United States and Europe appear only half-willing, and are entirely incapable of anything substantial to stop human rights abuses in Syria, or help the country’s opposition in its struggle against the regime.
Economic sanctions—the first diplomatic weapon of choice—do not require international consensus to have a serious impact. And although only a few countries have the ability to influence the Syrian economy, they acted slowly and sent mixed signals. Since the beginning of the uprising, Syrian activists have pointed out that most of the country’s oil (which accounts for an estimated 30 % percent of overall export revenue) goes to only a handful of European countries: Germany and Italy each amounting to a third, followed by France and the Netherlands with a rough 10%, and Austria and Spain with slightly more than 5%. Yet it took the European Union almost six months (September 2) to ban oil imports from Syria. The decision also stopped short of ordering companies that provide services to Syria for pumping (like Total or Shell) to pull out altogether—fearful lest Chinese or Russian companies scoop operations in their stead. This might be a moot point, as no oil would be pumped if there are no buyers; and reports indicate that oil extraction was all but suspended by late September. But this raises doubts as to whether Europeans are ready to put their money where their mouths are.
Similarly on October 13, German technology giant Siemens inked a 305 million Euro deal with the Syrian ministry of electricity to expand a major power station. Even if the expected external funding for this project is not forthcoming under the current conditions, Minister of Electricity Imad Khamis was quoted referring to the European Investment Bank (as well as unspecified “Arab funds”).
The righteous rhetoric and flurry of efforts to organize the exiled Syrian opposition can barely conceal how little can actually be done to bring that change about.
Once implemented, these sanctions have seriously affected the Syrian economy, even despite their slow start-up. Yet there are no signs still that they fulfill the desired strategic objective of motivating the Syrian economic elite to exert pressure on the regime, or forcing main players in the power structure to contemplate a change of tack—or even leadership. In the clearest expression how serious the situation may be, Syria’s ministry of economy on September 24 banned most imports except raw materials and grains, so as to preserve precious foreign currency reserves. It took the Syrian business community only a week to pressure the government into revoking the decision—how these imports will be paid for is still a question unanswered. Obviously, the economic elite can make itself heard in the halls of power, but so far it has only used this leverage to protect its own immediate interests and has not pushed for a fundamental change. The objective of driving a wedge between the economic elite and the ruling clique faces the additional and perhaps insurmountable difficulty that a significant proportion of these economic actors owe their favorable position and business models to the current regime— and many fully overlap with the regime. They have little reason to expect that they will be able to protect their interests if the House of Assad were to crumble.