‘Sanctions’ and Sanctions

Recent experience with Syria teaches how sanctions are misunderstood

Economic sanctions are to foreign policy as water is to medicine. Sanctions are prescribed for nearly all circumstances and, like water, they are often suggested as solutions with the implication that “it can’t hurt.” As Syria pivots toward civil war and Iran pivots toward nuclear armament, sanction is today’s buzzword, as demonstrated in its multiple appearances in last Tuesday’s Republican presidential candidate debate. As Texas Governor Rick Perry quickly realized after suggesting sanctions on Iran’s central bank, the details and effects of sanctions are multifarious. Amid the hysterical promotion of sanctions as a diplomatic panacea our politicians and their gullible constituents conveniently forget that they are square pegs in a world densely packed with round holes.

According to proponents of sanctions, last Friday should have been a momentous day for the restoration of peace in Syria and for the legitimacy of the Arab League. Friday was the deadline set by the Arab League for the Syrian government to let in neutral observers for the purpose of establishing a stable path to peace. Friday’s passing without even the latest nonsensical and explosive Syrian conspiracy theories was, depending on one’s perspective, either a symbolic whimper or the equivalent of a pejorative flipping of the bird. As expected, Arab finance ministers met this weekend in Cairo, producing on Sunday what appears to be a range of harsh sanctions.

Some observers assert that America’s implementation of sanctions since 2003 was integral to the inception of Syria’s civil revolt earlier this year, but frankly one cannot assess with great accuracy the true effects of American sanctions on Syria. The 25 percent drop in Syrian oil production in the period from 2003 to 2010 and the nearly parallel fall in government revenue could be attributed to issues besides America’s economic sanctions. As Bassam Haddad wrote in Middle East Policy earlier this year, “Through the end of 2010, Syria seemed relatively stable both politically and economically as other countries in the region experienced turbulence in either or both areas.” Only those wearing tinted glasses could conclude that America’s sanctions were decisive in fomenting today’s unrest.


Russia and China are the world’s remaining holdouts for sanctions against Syria. Both states vetoed an October United Nations Security Council resolution that condemned Syria’s response to civil unrest and likely would have lead to UN sanctions. The Arab League’s tardy yet strong stance on Syria may weaken Russia and China’s resolve—ostensibly premised on sensitivity to the region’s internal politics—but it will not affect Syria economically to a significant degree. Both Lebanon and Iraq are refusing to adopt the sanctions and, as Syria’s first and third greatest trade partners, respectively, among the Arab world, their refusal greatly diminishes the authority of the sanctions.

Ironically, China and Russia’s cynical preference of its economic interests over humanitarian concerns is best explained by the prior sanctions against Syria over the last decade. America first leveled sanctions against Syria in 2003 and since then the magnitude of the sanctions oscillated from a peak after the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik B. E. Hariri in 2005 to a nadir at the naïve early stages of the Obama administration. Nonetheless, throughout that period our unilateral sanctions (with scattered and minimal European support) served to strengthen Syria’s economic ties with China and Russia. Russia won a $2.7 billion contract to construct an oil processing plant in Syria. The China National Petroleum Corporation also expanded its oil interest in the Arab country.


A popular argument for implementing unilateral sanctions or even multilateral sanctions without global support is that they “set the stage” for broader sanctions. Syria reveals that this truism is accepted primarily for its repetition and not its veracity. After sanctions are leveled by America or some states in Western Europe, the rest of the world gratefully and predictably does its best to fill the economic vacuum. Economic sanctions, even when they are unilateral, are damaging, particularly for a smaller and inefficient government. Nonetheless, the past decade in foreign policy toward Syria illustrates how these “first round” sanctions often incentivize and entrench economic and political ties between the sanctioned country and those states that are ironically supposed to participate in the “second round” of sanctions.

Even worse, American sanctions deepened Syria’s relations with Venezuela, Iran, and other American foes. For instance, in 2007, following a steep decline in the presence of American oil companies, Syria partnered with Iran and Venezuela to develop a $1.5 billion oil refinery in Damascus. Ironically, our economic sanctions against Syria only deepened Syria’s economic ties with Iran. The economic interdependence of enemies is a common second level effect of sanctions. Naturally, economic interdependence reinforces political and social ties.

Over the last year we heard the suggestion that for Libya, Iran, Syria, and others, multilateral actions are more favorable than unilateral actions regardless of their effectiveness because of the superior “message” implied in multilateral actions. Syria demonstrates that whether sanctions are from one country or six is irrelevant. European sanctions were pivotal while American sanctions were toothless messages because of market shares. Likewise, Arab League sanctions become irrelevant when their big players decide not to play along.

The only thing that matters, especially when dealing with countries that could care less about an international or Western humanitarian consensus, are the market effects of sanctions. It’s the economy, stupid.

Eric T. Justin ’13, an associate editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.