Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, January 20th, 2010
American Sanctions on Syria: Godsend to Hardliners, Hell for Liberalizers
By Ehsani, January 19, 2010
For Syria Comment
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The United States first imposed economic sanctions on Syria, May 12, 2004. These sanctions were imposed mainly because of Damascus’s support for resistance groups: Hezbollah and Hamas. Even though Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon in 2005, the U.S. expanded the sanctions regime in February of 2008 by targeting the wealth, possessions, and travel of senior officials and anyone who does business with them. The new U.S. Administration failed to reverse this policy. On May 8, 2009, President Obama renewed economic sanctions against Syria despite diplomatic outreach to the Damascus government. The October 2009 visit by Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad to Washington produced no breakthroughs. Finding a way to end US sanctions on Syria was at the top of his agenda; but his efforts were in vain. The White House threw up its arms, claiming that only congress had the power to lift sanctions; in order to make any headway on that front, Syria would have to change its regional policies. This is a recapitulation of President Bush’s Syria policy. To make the point further, President Obama declined to relax US objections to France’s sale of Airbus planes to Syria, which could be justified as an exception to the sanction regime on the basis of civilian safety. Spare parts for Syria’s antique and failing Boeing jets were earlier released using this rationale.
Even though the sanctions were first imposed under the rubric of punishing Syria for interference in Lebanon, their dismantling will come only when Syria abandons its policy of resistance to Israel. Syrian-Lebanese relations have improved dramatically since sanctions were imposed, but this change has not been reflected in the economic relations of Washington with Damascus. While former regional foes kiss and make up, America finds it hard to follow suit.
Economic sanctions will not change Syria’s foreign policy or the priority it places on getting back the Golan Heights, which Israel took when it launched the 1967 war and annexed in 1981. Only peace and the return of the Golan Heights will change those policies and end Syria’s resistance to Israel.
What is the effect of economic sanctions? They retard economic reform and liberalization in Syria.
They give ammunition to hardliners and Baathists within Syria to preach fear of the West and America.
It is not easy to be a Syrian economic reformer. First, you have to convince the socialists within your ranks of the virtues of free markets and capitalism. The latest credit crisis has made this job a lot harder. And if this were not hard enough, the reformers also have to deal in a world where the global economic superpower can slap you with sanctions that are designed to bring weaker nations to their knees. In this environment, those arguing for self-sufficiency and insular economic policy will score a comfortable and easy win over those arguing for reforms and open markets. Indeed, the only reason Syria has weathered the storm and has been able to survive the American sanctions is because of its long standing policy of self- sufficiency and relatively closed economic system. To embrace capitalism and economic reform while the threat of economic sanctions is always waived against you is akin to committing political suicide.
Syria needs to create close to 250,000 jobs a year to absorb its rapidly expanding labor force. In order to do that, she needs her economy to grow by at least 7% a year. Growing an economy this fast requires large foreign investments in infrastructure and domestic reforms. While the latter has been in motion for the past few years, attracting foreign investment while the U.S. imposes economic sanctions on Syria is not an easy feat. Any investor that decides to do business in the country runs the risk of having his international accounts frozen by Mr. Levey of the U.S. Treasury.
What the U.S. sanctions accomplish is to hand Syria’s economic hard liners a carte-blanche with which to push their anti-western agenda. Those arguing for an opening to the West must bite their tongues for fear of being branded supporters of America and her regional ally Israel.
The American sanctions on Syria have added to poverty and lowered the country’s standard of living. The Syrian leadership is fully aware of the domestic economic reforms that it must implement. While the speed and breadth of these reforms can be accelerated and expanded, this cannot take place while the stick of economic sanctions waved above Syria’s head by the White House.
The Arab world as a whole needs to create close to four million jobs, according to various projections. If America and the West want to reverse the spread of extremism and religious fanaticism, as it says it does, a modern day Marshal Plan is needed for the region, not more privation. Given America’s budget deficit troubles, such a policy ought not to involve tax-payer grants of money by the US government. Only private investment can pick up the slack. American foreign policy must be focused on prodding the governments of the Middle East to promote maximum economic growth without inflation. This has been the mandate that America’s Central Bank (Federal Reserve) operates with. Indeed, when it comes to China, successive U.S. Administrations have accepted its emergence as an economic power before its political liberalization. When it comes to the Arab world and Syria, however, the notion of pushing governments to embrace a similar economic principal goes out of the window. What the Arab people need from America is support for open markets, higher standards of living, and faster integration in the global economy. What the Syrian people have received instead is sanctions and abuse that impede economic growth and make them poorer. Those who continue to argue for keeping the sanctions fail to show how these measures have achieved their stated objectives.
Syria’s economic reformers already have their hands full trying to undo the country’s 40-year experiment with socialism. They do not need America — the apotheosis of capitalism and free markets — working against them as well.