The Arab League’s annual summit is no hot ticket. However, Bashar al-Assad must be pleased at his invitation to join him in Saudi Arabia this month. Syria’s president has been ostracized by much of the world since 2011, when his crackdown on his people sparked one of the savage civil wars of the 21st century. Now, as we’ve reported, it has won the conflict, and its neighbors, and some in the west, are weighing whether to re-establish ties. The dilemma about Syria is acute and is found elsewhere from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Should governments continue to isolate rogue states because it is clear that sanctions will not lead to political change?
Make no mistake, Assad is a war criminal. More than 300,000 civilians have been killed since 2011, 1.4% of Syria’s 22 million pre-war population. He has relied on terror, barrel bombs, Wagner mercenaries and Iranian-backed militias to stay in power. Cities have turned into rubble. Some 6 million civilians have been displaced within Syria; An equal number have fled the country. This mafia sits at the top of the economy. Before the war, 50 Syrian pounds were equal to one dollar; Now the rate is around 8,700.
Sunni Arab countries were once opposing Assad and even funding his enemies. He argues that he is here to stay. They are also eager to see the millions of Syrian refugees return home, especially after the February earthquake. Saudi Arabia’s recent tensions with Iran could mean Syria is no longer a flashpoint in a larger conflict between the Middle East’s two most powerful states. And if left alone, the Assad regime could be a threat. It is financed by the drug trade: Captagon, an amphetamine, is Syria’s largest export.
For the West, the downside of lifting sanctions against Assad is clear. He will feel right, and the deterrent effect of sanctions on other regimes, including Russia, can be reduced. However, the prospect of Syria remaining a failed state and humanitarian catastrophe indefinitely is also not attractive. If Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) trade with Syria, the United States will face the prospect of imposing sanctions on its allies for trying to keep a watertight door on Syria.
So Syria is a test case. As the United States and Europe have become more reluctant to use military force abroad, they have increasingly used economic coercion. The United States has imposed sanctions on approximately 10,000 people and companies in 50 countries, which together represent 27% of global GDP. It has imposed tough sanctions on some states from Cuba to Myanmar. In an increasing number of cases, other countries are ignoring the West and starting to make deals with rogue regimes. For example, China’s foreign minister just held talks with the Taliban.
A decade ago, many lawmakers saw sanctions as a cheap and safe alternative to war, allowing the economically dominant West to paralyze hostile regimes without firing a single shot. They were too optimistic, as Syria shows. But that doesn’t mean sanctions are useless. They should be thought of as a dial that can be turned up and down over time. They can’t topple autocrats like Assad, but they might be able to encourage them to behave a little less badly. Even small boons are worth bearing for those suffering under evil rule.