The implications of a failed international approach vis-a-vis the Syrian Conflict; sanctions and pos

Tuesday 7 May 2019
Syria Map
Ola Rifai

Violence in the last couple of months has, relatively speaking, been halted in Syria. However, alas, this does not denote a closer end to the conflict. On the contrary, two developments occurred earlier this April that would add further complexity to the Syrian drama. And, interestingly, both of which are the results of a failed international rhetoric toward the Syrian War.

The first one is the fuel shortages in regime held areas,which is due to multiple sets of US sanctions on Iran, Syria and their allies that have cut the flow of Iranian crude into Syria. For two weeks now, hundreds of cars are seen queuing for fuel in Damascus, Tartus and other regime-controlled parts of the country. Drivers would wait for more than 12 hours at petrol stations only to get 20 liters of fuel. (due to government regulations). The regime responded by sending folk dancers to petrol stations so they can perform dabbkeh to entrain drivers while resisting what the regime call ‘economic war’. Also, it asked Shikhs to focus their Friday Khutba (public preaching) on the ‘importance of patience in times of crisis’.

In essence, economic sanctions have become a foreign policy tool for the US in the post-cold war world. The success of this tool is a subject of heated debates among political theorists in the field of International Relations. Today, US economic sanctions target dozens of countries aiming to change the political behaviour of states and non-state actors. Indeed, the accomplishments of such sanctions are very limited particularly in the Middle East. The late Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammar Qadhafi of Libya are good examples.

Therefore, Sanctions alone, and for a short period of time are unlikely to achieve the desired results. Moreover,they can backfire. This tool of foreign policy should be employed as part of a bigger plan. Well, unfortunately, this cannot be applied to the Syrian case whereby the aims of these sanctions are not directed to fulfil a specific agenda. Rather they pursue unliteral goals; the main one is to restrict the Iranian threat and to defend the power balance.

On the ground, hardship stricken Syrians are suffering due to sanctions that won’t trigger them against the regime, and even if they did, they won’t be sufficient. Those who dared to protest nine years ago were either gunned down or taken into custody, while the rest fled the country. The remaining five million Syrians in Damascus are not willing to do so for the sake of fuel. Furthermore, fuel shortages are provoking more anger against the US. One driver tells the Syrian State TV reporter vigorously “Why don’t they just leave us alone, we are victims of an economic war, a global war, we are paying the heaviest price”.

In order to be effective, sanctions should work in conjunction with other tools to achieve particular gains. And hence,sanctions should set realistic and achievable aims.After nine years it is very clear that the Syrian regime won’t just step down due to economic sanctions neither would it rush to serious peace talks due to fuel shortages. Demands, just as the release of thousands of political prisoners, and a physical guarantee for refugees to return to their areas without the risk of being taken into custody could be more achievable under pressure and would serve instituting a post conflict era.

The second development is the call by Kurdish leaders to establish International Courts in Northeastern Syria to subject some 5000 ISIS fighters who are currently in prison camps under Kurdish control. The Syrian Democratic Forces SDF (a coalition of mainly Kurdish fighters) and the International Coalition against ISIS have successfully defeated ISIS in North Syria and conquered their areas. However, the International Coalition left the rest for Kurds to deal with. In a statement, the Kurdish administration called for “a special international tribunal in North-East Syria to prosecute terrorists”. Many western governments (such as the US, Britain, Germany, and Belgium) have refused to bring their citizens home fearing the potential security risk they might pose. So very ironically, instead of taking responsibility of addressing the Jihadi issue among some of their citizens, leaders of these countries decided to leave the Jihadists in Syria and place the responsibility on the Kurds; who were fighting against them and who suffered tragic loses of men and women because of ISIS.

Military intervention is also very debatable in the International Relations arena, it succeeded in almost all cases as regards eliminating the military threat. Nevertheless, the success was restricted when it came to the aftermath of fighting. Especially if the intervention was not accompanied with a political policy.And here, once again, the International Coalition against ISIS in Syria acted solely rather than being part of a more comprehensive strategy to fight ISIS.

Many sources claim that Western officials might study this option. Well, this would be a lethal and an illegal decision. How would Western democracy approve the establishment of international courts on Syrian territory controlled by a nonstate actor. By doing so the West is legitimizing the establishment of an independent Kurdish enclave. This is a question that only Syrians should determine. There is no doubt that the pre 2011 Kurdish status is gone forever, and the age of denouncing civil rights and ethnic identities is gone too. Kurds played a vital role in eliminating ISIS and they have the right to secure their territories given the chaotic situation. Yet this does not justify declaring independence without involving the Syrian people.

Whether autonomy or a decentralized form of governance this could be addressed by all citizens. Certainly, no referendum could take place in today’s Syria due to the security dilemma and the chaos. Thus, the Kurdish question is among the first challenges in post-conflict Syria.

In this vein, instead of addressing a crisis, the International Coalition is producing several ones. Leaving some 5000 dangerous fighters in an unstable region and moreover, leaving some 2500 children(according to UNICEF) who have been brainwashed for years and are still in such a harmful environment. This would have fatal implications to be seen in the near future.

Indeed, the Western rhetoric towards the Syrian war turned into a fiasco, as it lacked a defined strategy and serious players. This produced a vacuum that was happily filled by rogue states and dangerous non state actors each pursuing self-interest, and henceforth prolonging the conflict. Yet, it is still not too late for Western powers to designate a solid strategy and engage powerful actors to draw a road map instead of stumbling into an self-made quagmire.

*/ Ola Rifai is a Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews.


The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy, and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.

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