West can find ways to pressure Syria
By Una Galani
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.
DUBAI — Western powers have strongly condemned the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on protesters, but they have so far refrained from anything more than tough talk. That might reflect doubts about the effectiveness of economic sanctions. But it also reveals the fears other countries have of political instability in Syria.
True, years of economic sanctions and isolation imposed on the country by the United States have failed to weaken the regime’s support for Hezbollah, the armed Shi’ite movement in Lebanon, or shake Syria’s alliance with Iran. And many Syrians even believe that the sanctions backfired, fueling anti-Western sentiment.
Yet old tactics refreshed could be more effective now that support for the regime is waning. The United States could toughen up the sanctions it relaxed in recent years. And if Europe took similar action, the measures could have real bite. The continent accounted for 36 percent of Syria’s total exports and 29 percent of its imports in 2008, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The West also has the capacity to freeze funds and assets belonging to President Bashar al-Assad, his family, his inner circle and the cadre of top army or security services that form the regime’s backbone. After all, similar actions were taken in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
But the lack of prompt action by governments may at heart be a reflection of their fears of undermining a regime that, though repressive, has brought a degree of predictability to a country made up of various minority groups and religions. Rightly or wrongly, Syria is considered a stabilizing presence in the region, and the West may prefer the devil they know. Assad has kept the bizarre status quo with Israel originated by his father — a state of war without combat. He has supported the Turkish government’s intransigence toward Kurdish demands for statehood. Finally Syria is counted upon to make the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq as smooth as can be.
Sanctions would also risk compromising increasingly valuable economic ties. Syria last year agreed to establish a free trade zone with Turkey — a NATO member and candidate to join the European Union — as well as Jordan and Lebanon. Bilateral trade between Syria and Turkey alone reached $2.5 billion in 2010, up 43 percent from the previous year, according to Turkey’s statistics agency TurkStat. With so much at stake, it’s no wonder no one is rushing to sanction Syria.