Syria towards the unknown

By: Kai Kverme, University of Oslo.

As the deadline for Syria to sign the Arab League protocol to dispatch observers to the country has past without an official Syrian response, it is expected that the regime will face stronger pressure than before. But the regime has survived sanctions and isolation before; and thus it is the time to ask if things will be different this time around.

When the Arab foreign ministers met in Cairo earlier in November, and a majority voted to suspend Syria from the League, there was an important factor to take into consideration, Turkey. While it was decided long before this meeting that the Turkish foreign minister would take part in this particular session, it made the step taken by the League seem more powerful, as it indicated a stronger Arab-Turkish cooperation for the future. Turkey has strongly condemned the use of violence on part of the Syrian regime against the peaceful demonstrators, demanding an end to the rule of al-Asad, but has so far not implemented any of the sanctions against it that both Turkish premier Erdogan and foreign minister Davutoglu have threatened to enforce. In the weeks after the meeting the Turkish side has become even more vocal in its criticism of al-Asad, hinting at the possibility of establishing so-called safe zones on Syrian territory with the use of force.

This is very much in line with what has been demanded by the Local Coordination Committees, the grass-root network which organizes the demonstrations inside Syria, who a couple of months ago demonstrated in favor of a no-fly zone over the country. Parts of the opposition goes even further, with the Muslim Brotherhood supporting foreign military assistance like the one NATO offered Libya, and Abdel Halim Khaddam demanding that NATO intervene, this way or another.

On the other hand there is the Syrian National Council, which has not asked for a no-fly zone or the creation of safe zones in the country. Until now, the demonstrations that have taken place on a daily basis all over Syria have been unarmed and peaceful. The defectors from the Syrian army, which have organized themselves as the Free Syrian Army, have increased their activity and attacks against the regime, but outside the framework of the demonstrations. The National Council has also tried to keep them at an arms length, fearing that the regime would use a closer cooperation between the two to ward off Arab and international pressure. After all, one of the reasons for the support the demonstrating Syrians receive from inside and outside is that they are just that, peaceful demonstrators demanding basic human rights.

So, will sanctions from Turkey and the Arab League have any effect on the regime? Earlier sanctions, like the Syria Accountability Act passed by USA in 2003, did have a certain effect, but did not threaten the regime in any serious way. The reason for this is quite simple, the trade between USA and Syria was and is minimal, and Syria could get most of what it needed through other channels. The initial sanctions passed by the EU and USA earlier this year also had limited effect; they targeted persons in the regime rather than the regime itself. But when the Syrian oil sector was included in the sanctions, things took a turn for the worse, and a couple of weeks ago the oil company Total announced that is was stopping their oil supplies to the country because Syria was no longer able to pay for the oil it had brought.

Should Turkey impose sanctions on Syria it could be devastating for the economy, as Turkey is Syria’s largest trade partner. This coupled with Arab sanctions would definitely mean that the regime would have to rethink its options, and what is left of resources would have to be channeled to the military. Just as the point of no return is passed for the demonstrators, this would imply that the point of no return is passed for the regime as well, and I am afraid that we will have some bloody months ahead of us.

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