As President Barack Obama weighs the U.S. response to chemical weapons attacks against Syrian civilians, one soft power option should still be at top of his to-do list: cutting off access to the U.S. financial system to those doing business with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
Russian banks and others are reported to be helping the Assad regime circumvent U.S. and EU sanctions by holding Syrian money while continuing to do business, legally, in the Europe Union and the United States. With a more aggressive and coordinated approach to financial sanctions, Obama could inflict serious capital damage on Assad’s enablers — without collateral damage in the form of slain or injured civilians.
Aggressive sanctions could be more effective than bombing in hastening the end of the Syrian civil war by imposing substantial financial costs on those who are propping up Assad — without enraging the Arab street.
Iran probably won’t abandon Assad. But if Russia is forced to choose between its banks and a regime that has become a global pariah, Moscow could opt to stop arming the Syrian government.
This banks-before-bombs strategy would require buy-in from the European Union and diplomatic heft. But it wouldn’t require a United Nations Security Council resolution against Syria — which Russia already said it would veto. It would also send an immediate message about the civilized world’s resolve to punish chemical weapons use, without invoking or precluding military action.