Middle East

Syria sanctions: Arab League tightens grip

Syria's border with Iraq (file photo - 2007)
Image caption Iraq, which shares a long and notoriously permeable desert border with Syria, has said it will not enforce the sanctions

The Arab League sanctions are not expected to cripple Syria overnight, and there will undoubtedly be loopholes which Damascus will be able to exploit.

But the League's first-ever venture into such punitive action against one of its own members will heighten the sense of siege, pressure and isolation which Syria is already suffering, and it is bound to aggravate an already dire economic situation.

"It is not a fatal blow, but it is more than rhetoric - it is serious, and it will affect them, not immediately, but in the medium and long terms," said one senior Arab financial expert.

He said the blow would be softened by the fact that Syria has already turned inwards in many of its daily financial dealings in exchanges of goods.

The sanctions will also allow a continued flow of remittances from Syrian workers abroad, and imports of basic commodities vital to the daily lives of ordinary people will be exempted, so a certain amount of cash will continue to circulate.

Porous borders

Syrian officials have also already expressed their belief that a number of Arab countries will not go along with the sanctions.

Two of Syria's neighbours - Iraq to the east and Lebanon to the west - voted against the measures.

Both their borders with Syria are notoriously permeable, and Iraqi officials have already said it would be impossible for them to apply sanctions.

One of the main groups trying to organise the Syrian uprising, the Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), said that sanctions would be ineffective unless a mechanism were set up to monitor their strict observance.

That is hard to imagine, along borders that in recent years have defied all efforts to halt the flow of arms and fighters from Syria into Iraq, and the flow of arms from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The LCC also warned that even if effectively applied, sanctions alone would not halt the violence or protect civilians, so it urged the Arab League to redouble efforts to bring down the Baathist regime.

More than 30% of Syria's exports in recent years have gone to Iraq alone, a figure which could rise as Damascus develops established lifelines when other outlets dry up.

Trade in transit

Lebanon, whose Hezbollah-influenced government is close to the Syrians, has opposed the League's positions on Syria from the outset.

Syrian companies are already reported to have begun trading operations through Lebanon to disguise and sanitise their origins.

Damascus will also be looking to its strategic ally in the region, non-Arab Iran, to keep another sustaining connection going.

How tight the sanctions will be on other fronts is not yet clear.

Jordan, Syria's southern neighbour, went along with the sanctions but has been expressing concern about the important land route that carries goods from Turkey and further afield through Syria to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

The League's sanctions resolution made a provision for such interests to be taken into account.

It set up a Technical Executive Committee to take charge of implementing the measures.

One of its tasks would be to "look into exceptions relating to humanitarian issues directly affecting the lives of the Syrian people, and also Syria's Arab neighbours".

For Syria, which posits itself as the citadel of Arab unity and nationalism, to find itself singled out for punishment by almost all of its fellow-Arab nations, clearly required some explanation from Damascus to its own people.

Its state media portrayed the League's steps as part of a western-engineered campaign to undermine the country because of its steadfastness against Israel and imperialism.

Substantial support

The sanctions moves coincided with an upsurge of armed attacks on Syrian security personnel, allowing the regime to argue that they were both aspects of the same conspiracy spearheaded on the ground by gangs of foreign-instigated terrorists.

While the League insisted that its measures were designed to spare the Syrian citizenry and target the regime, and also that their aim was to forestall outside intervention, Damascus argued that it was the Syrian people who were being punished, and that the resolutions were paving the way for the West to intervene.

So far, the regime has managed to continue bringing many thousands of people onto the streets in Damascus and elsewhere to demonstrate in denunciation of the Arab League resolutions and the possibility of external intervention.

While many of the regime loyalists may have been mobilised to order, there is no doubt that the regime does still enjoy support from substantial sectors of society, especially minorities and the middle and merchant classes, worried about what might follow were the Alawite-dominated regime to go.

By tightening the economic noose, the Arab sanctions, if serious and sustained, could bring forward the day when some of those sectors no longer see the regime as serving their interest.

But that day could still be a long way, and many more deaths, away.

And in the meantime, as the LCC pointed out, the ordinary people would be likely to be progressively affected by the negative impact of the sanctions.

That is why they continue to urge the international community to take action to speed up the regime's demise, by helping establish safe areas to which they believe large numbers of security forces would defect, triggering a collapse of the military machine which has been crushing the uprising.