The Middle East Channel

How to destabilize the Assad regime

In the wake of reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad allegedly used sarin, a chemical weapon, it appears that U.S. President Barack Obama is on the brink of providing the Syrian opposition with lethal weapons. But it certainly does not seem that the Obama administration pursued the full range of nonlethal options available, particularly those ...


In the wake of reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad allegedly used sarin, a chemical weapon, it appears that U.S. President Barack Obama is on the brink of providing the Syrian opposition with lethal weapons. But it certainly does not seem that the Obama administration pursued the full range of nonlethal options available, particularly those involving the international community. Here’s an idea: To affect meaningful and decisive change in Syria, which is suffering from a humanitarian catastrophe, the international community should use all available diplomatic and economic leverage to choke off the arms, resources, and money flowing to the regime.

A new Human Rights First report reveals that at least a dozen countries — including Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Angola, Georgia, Lebanon, Cyprus, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates — are continuing to provide the Assad regime with weapons, fuel, military technology, and access to financial markets. The paper provides both a unique overview of Assad’s third-party supporters and a roadmap the U.S. government can follow to crack down on them. The U.S. government should use diplomacy to try to influence the countries providing these resources as well as the countries allowing these resources to pass through their jurisdiction. In addition, the U.S. Treasury should use existing authority under the Syria sanctions regime to designate those entities continuing to support the Assad regime and block them from the U.S. marketplace.

While Assad’s key allies — Russia and Iran — are unlikely to bend to the will of the United States, the networks, entities, and brokers that these countries rely on to deliver the goods to Syria might. Weapons and fuel shipments pass through multiple jurisdictions and rely on a web of commercial entities including but not limited to cargo companies, shippers, and insurers. The operations of each of these entities rely, in turn, on access to international markets, trade routes, and business partners. Given its alliances and global reach, the United States is well positioned to coordinate international action and disrupt these supply chains. This approach would directly benefit the opposition forces without crossing lethal assistance red-lines.

To systematize its crackdown on enablers, the State Department should enlist the help of dozens of countries that can block shipments to Syria and regulate or pressure businesses that are either directly providing support to Assad or supporting the enablers. While Syria’s major allies have largely proven resistant to U.S. pressure, their resources often pass through areas controlled by U.S. allies. Marine shipments from Russia go through either Turkey’s Bosporus or the territory of European countries, and those from Iran go through the Egyptian-controlled Suez Canal. These countries can invoke their territorial jurisdiction to inspect and interdict ships delivering arms and resources to Assad.

Initially, airplanes headed for Syria entered Turkey’s air space, but after Turkey began inspecting suspected arms shipments, Russia, Iran, and North Korea began to send air shipments via Iraq. For months, the U.S. government has criticized Iraqi authorities for turning a blind eye to these shipments. During his recent visit to Bagdad, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on Iraqi authorities to undertake robust and unannounced inspections of flights passing through their airspace en route to Syria. In response, Iraq grounded and inspected to two such flights.   

These supply chains also involve commercial interests that are subject to pressure from the United States and its allies. Last year, Angola’s state-run oil company, Sonangol, agreed to transfer 200,000 tons of diesel fuel to Sytrol in a 12-month-deal brokered by a private South African firm. Not only is the United States the second largest recipient of Angola’s oil, but Sonangol’s wholly owned subsidiary — Sonangol USA, based in Houston — has stakes in a number of offshore oil and gas projects in the Gulf of Mexico — a relationship that proved useful just last year when the U.S. authorities persuaded Sonangol to pull out of a $7.5 billion natural gas project in Iran. Another Houston connection worth leveraging is Citgo. Venezuela’s state-oil company PdVSA, which wholly owns the Citgo subsidiary, has sent more than 100,000 tons of diesel to Syria since 2011 on a ship that receives insurance coverage from Britain’s P & I Club. The Citgo subsidiary is instrumental for PdVSA’s operations as it provides enhanced capacity to refine Venezuela’s high sulfur crude. 

Furthermore, the Obama administration has already once demonstrated its ability to effectively act on interdiction. In 2012, the State Department teamed up with Dutch and British officials to use EU sanctions to halt a shipment of repaired attack helicopters headed for Syria onboard Merchant Vessel Alaed. The Netherlands invoked its jurisdictional authority over the Curacao flag of convenience flown by the Alaed and, along with U.S. and British authorities, compelled the London-based insurer to withdraw coverage, forcing the ship to turn around and head back to Russia. This thwarted shipment was not the only negative consequence for the ship’s owner, FEMCO LLC, which also lost a major business partnership with United Nordic Shipping as a result.

In order to re-up its strategy, the administration should employ a cross-governmental approach that enlists the Treasury, Commerce, and Defense Departments. The Treasury Department should use sanctions to limit Assad’s ability to repatriate funds from oil exports and more properly enforce the 2012 GRAHVITY sanctions prohibiting the transfer of internet, communications, or surveillance technology to Syria. The Treasury Department should also prohibit U.S. companies from doing business with Assad’s enablers by designating those entities that continue to supply him with resources. Congress could bolster the latter measure by requiring federal contractors to certify that they are not in business with Assad’s enablers. Congress should also prohibit foreign financial institutions enabling Assad from doing business with U.S. banks. Meanwhile the Commerce Department should secure tighter control over the delivery of information and communications technology to Syria especially through authorized foreign distributors. Finally, as mandated by an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013, the Pentagon should cease its business with Rosoboronexport, one of Assad’s chief enablers, instead of entering into new contracts as it has expressed the intention to do. 

This comprehensive effort would limit Assad’s capacity to inflict brutality on the Syrian people. While it will not completely prevent arms and other resources from flowing into Syria, a sustained and all-inclusive effort could block enough to degrade Assad’s military machine and save lives. With no end to this horrific conflict in sight, there’s every reason to try.

Elisa Massimino is the President and CEO of Human Rights First.

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