Sanctions Alone Won’t Topple Syria’s Assad: Meghan L. O’Sullivan

On Feb. 24, the U.S., European nations, members of the Arab League and other sympathetic countries making up the newly established “Friends of Syria” group will gather in Tunisia for an emergency meeting on how to stem the bloodshed in Syria. Their deliberations are almost certain to involve calls for more crippling sanctions to bring about regime change and debates over providing military support to the fractured opposition groups inside the country.

While more economic steps can and should be taken, policy makers need to rethink the incorrect assumption that the more ambitious the objective (regime change, in this case) the more comprehensive and aggressive sanctions must be. Instead of simply looking for more ways to isolate Syria economically, the U.S. and its allies need to think about how sanctions can be used specifically to advance regime change. This will require creating a sanctions policy more subtle and nuanced way than one aiming just to contain a regime, or even to change its behavior.

A look at the record reveals how wrong it is to equate tough, widespread sanctions with the successful pursuit of regime change. Hard-line strategies -- extensive U.S. measures coupled, in some cases, with multilateral sanctions -- didn’t lead to regime change in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1990s, Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya in the 1980s and ‘90s, Iran since the mid-1990s or Fidel Castro’s Cuba since, it seems, before the beginning of time.

Pressuring the Government

In contrast, sanctions contributed to the ouster of the entrenched apartheid regime in South Africa and to the end of Slobodan Milosevic’s rule in Serbia. In neither of those cases were punitive measures truly multilateral and comprehensive. In South Africa, the only UN sanction was an arms embargo; even U.S. sanctions were selectively targeted to certain exports and investments. Penalties were focused on pressuring the government to change its ways while simultaneously allowing support to flow to nascent civil society, which helped increase the capabilities of the opposition and created even greater incentives for change. In Serbia, sanctions by the U.S. and others were paired with support to opposition groups as well as clear statements from international powers about what benefits a new regime in Serbia would enjoy.

Those seeking regime change in Syria should move away from the distracting idea that harsher measures are the key to resolving that country’s crisis. Sanctions alone almost never produce such strategic outcomes. More likely, President Bashar al-Assad will be toppled through a strategy focused equally on starving the regime of hard currency and cultivating the opposition so it becomes a viable alternative to Assad’s government. Right now, the opposition is fragmented, lacks popular legitimacy and offers no real vision for a new Syria.

Many advocates of stricter sanctions feel that targeting those at the economic base of the regime will lead them to abandon Assad. But no amount of economic pressure is likely to convince those loyalists that they will be better off in a post-Assad world; dismal economic prospects will always be much more attractive than the organized revenge killings and systematic discrimination by the state that many fear will be their future once Assad is gone.

To change that calculation, the opposition needs to coalesce into a much more cogent entity. It must unify not only around removing Assad, but around the principles on which a new Syrian state will be built. In doing so, it should give assurances to Syria’s Alawite and Christian minorities that their rights and safety will be respected in a new Syria. Its leaders should also decide on what a form of governance the new nation would have, and commit to a constitution allowing all groups some prospect of having an impact on national policy.

Outside Powers

Outside powers have a limited ability to help the opposition perform these essential tasks. Technical support from constitutional scholars and offers of neutral venues for discussion are important, but will only go so far. Too much foreign meddling in these details would lead to questions of the opposition’s legitimacy.

Nevertheless, Western and governments can provide incentives for the anti-Assad forces to resolve factional differences, make hard calls and compromises, and articulate clear visions and principles. Specific commitments of support to a post-Assad government would be important. But one of the strongest incentives would be the promise of material and military assistance.

There is no UN embargo on Syria, making deliberations simpler than the fraught debates about providing arms to the beleaguered Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s. (Indeed, the international community should be cautious about placing a UN arms embargo on Syria. It should remember the travesty of the Bosnian arms embargo, which ended up effectively being an intervention on the side of the aggressor rather than the victim, as the Serbian-backed forces had extensive weaponry and the Bosnian Muslims none.)

The arguments against arming the opposition are strong. Doing so could escalate violence, contribute to mayhem after Assad’s demise, lead to U.S. or international complicity in a messy civil war, and spark a proxy war between Iran and the Western and Arab powers.

Yet U.S. policy makers are misleading themselves if they believe they can decide whether or not the Syrian opposition will be armed. First, the U.S. is a peripheral actor in this arena; Americans may focus on President Barack Obama’s or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s strong statements that Assad must go, but few in the region see them as an indicator of imminent U.S. action. Second, some countries -- possibly Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Turkey -- may arm the Syrian opposition. The strategic stakes of the outcome in Syria are too high for the rest of the region to stand by, especially as Russia and Iran are perceived to be militarily shoring up the Assad government.

Behind the Scenes

What the U.S. may be able to influence is the manner by which the opposition is armed. Faced with the dilemma of violating the UN arms embargo on Bosnia or letting the Bosnian Muslims be crushed, Bill Clinton’s administration decided publicly to argue against sending in weapons, but privately to do nothing to hamper illicit Iranian arms shipments to the Bosnian Muslims.

Similarly, some U.S. proponents of arming the Syrian opposition seem comfortable letting others do this work behind the scenes. The U.S. need not get involved, they say. History, however, suggests that this sort of approach can create unintended consequences with major negative implications for domestic security. In the 1980s, the U.S. desire to maintain “plausible deniability” in arming the Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviet Union led to the deeply flawed strategy of channeling assistance through Paksitan’s intelligence services. The United States had little oversight when it came to who was being armed and no ability to influence their agendas or objectives beyond fighting the Soviets.

Prioritizing the ability to claim no involvement runs the real risk of a situation in which various Syrian groups are armed by different patrons with no accountability. Instead, the United States should take a leadership role in Friday’s meeting to craft a multilateral strategy for regime change. This plan should involve coordinating the efforts of all external actors looking to support those standing against Assad -- and find a way to use military and other support for the opposition as a means to entice it to overcome its divisions and articulate a new vision for Syria.

If Russia and China insist on neutering the UN as a vehicle to address the crisis in Syria, it should not force those sympathetic to the plight of the Syrian people or worried about Syria’s descent into chaos to stand by. Nor should it limit action to sanctions, in the unfounded hope that more economic pressure alone will bring about regime change.

Instead, the U.S. should work with its Western and Arab allies to craft a coordinated strategy that, alongside sanctions, is aimed at turning the Syrian resistance into a viable alternative to Assad -- and uses the prospect of military support as an incentive for doing so.

(Meghan L. O’Sullivan, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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