Daniel W. Drezner

Stupidest. Sanctions. Ever.

The nasty piece of work that is the Syrian regime has been amping up the repression of its own population as well as its overseas diaspora.  What can be done about it?  Well, this is a purely theoretical question, since China and Russia the United Nations Security Council ain’t willing to take action. Still, for ...

The nasty piece of work that is the Syrian regime has been amping up the repression of its own population as well as its overseas diaspora.  What can be done about it?  Well, this is a purely theoretical question, since China and Russia the United Nations Security Council ain’t willing to take action. Still, for the thrill of it, let’s put on our thinking caps and ponder what measures could and should be taken short of force. 

Although the Assad regime has essentially declared war on much the Syrian population, there is one coveted demographic that they have yet to alienate — the business elites in Aleppo and Damascus.  By and large the anti-Assad movement has yet to penetrate Syria’s two largest cities.  If sanctions could be designed to target those sectors of the population in particular, then the Syrian regime might feel its "selectorate" slipping away, undermining the regime even further. 

As it turns out, these kind of sanctions were imposed on Syria for a short spell.  What’s surprising is that it was the Syrian government that imposed them:

 The Syrian government on Tuesday revoked a recent decision to ban imports of most consumer goods, a move that had sent prices soaring and provoked outrage among a business elite that has until now backed the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad in his nearly seven-month contest with anti-government activists….

Analysts said that the ban imposed last week on imported merchandise, which included cars, household appliances and even food items, underscored a deep sense of anxiety among the authorities as Syria faces some of its most dangerous political unrest in four decades of dictatorship. Officials said it was needed to protect foreign currency reserves.

Analysts said the ban had been ordered without any study of the potential effects on the Syrian market or on Syria’s trade agreements with neighboring countries. Some economists in Syria said the import ban and its reversal were indicators that the Syrian leadership remained uncertain in the face of the uprising and its ramifications for the Syrian economy.

“The ruling caused a domestic uproar that was very important,” said Nabil Sukkar, a former senior economist at the World Bank who now leads the Syrian Consulting Bureau for Development and Investment, based in Damascus. “They realized that they can’t do that because it will lead to soaring prices, smuggling, unemployment and harm the credibility of the reforms.”….

[An] Obama administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity following diplomatic protocol, contended that despite the reversal, “the damage has already been done.” The official said inflation had tripled and smuggling had surged since the decision was made, unsettling the business elite in Syria, which has largely sided with the government.

The “well-to-do are completely dismayed with Assad,” the American official said. “They don’t think he knows what he’s doing. Inflation has gone up. He can’t fix it.”

If the Assad government is truly this self-defeating, then maybe there’s hope for regime change after all.  All we can hope for is that further bloodshed is kep to aminimum, and that no one gives the Assads a copy of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith’s The Dictator’s Handbook

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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