“What we have seen is that sanctions can put pressure on governments and regimes to change their behavior.”
--White House spokesman Jay Carney, April 25, 2011
The Obama administration is strongly suggesting it will impose “targeted sanctions” on Syria in response to the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations. But Syria is already subject to a wide range of U.S. sanctions, and trade between the countries amounts to less than $1 billion a year.
The administration apparently is hoping that a U.S. push will persuade Europeans allies—which have deeper ties to Damascus—to impose their own, more painful sanctions. The possible announcement of fresh sanctions also appears to be intended to signal resolve against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, who the administration once had wooed as a possible partner in a comprehensive Middle East peace deal.
Carney’s assertion raises a question: Do sanctions actually convince countries to change their behavior?
The United States has repeatedly sanctioned Syria. There are specific laws such as the 2000 Iran and Syria Nonproliferation Act and 2003 Syria Accountability Act, both of which have been implemented with a series of executive orders, including several to target Assad’s inner circle.
But the Congressional Research Service lists a number of other sanctions that also apply to Syria, including (among others): the International Security Assistance and Arms Export Control Act of 1976; the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977; the Export Administration Act of 1979 (which puts Syria on the terrorism list); Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act of 1989; the Anti-Terrorism and Arms Export Control Amendments Act of 1989 and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.
Whew. These sanctions have cut off Syria from U.S. economic aid and limited trade between the two countries, such as deterring American companies from investing in Syria and American banks from opening branches there. Because most U.S. exports are banned, the Syrian national airline has had trouble repairing its Boeing jets or buying certain European jets that include American content.
But there is little evidence that this long list has made much difference in curbing either the brutal nature of Syria’s government or in ending its tolerance of anti-Israeli militia groups that operate out of Damascus. Indeed, Syria embarked on a secret effort with North Korea to build a nuclear plant that was destroyed in 2007 by Israeli jets.
Iran is another country that has been heavily sanctioned by the United States and others. Five years ago, the United States joined with five other major powers to offer the Iranian government a choice — between “sticks” (more sanctions) and “carrots” (economic and political benefits) — to give up its push to master nuclear technology. Iran apparently never found the carrots that compelling, and despite a series of sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council, the European Union and other countries, Iran’s nuclear program continues apace.
Key Iranian officials in the nuclear field and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have been targeted for sanctions — similar to what the administration is considering for the Syrian leadership — but those steps have also not deterred the Iranian government from its nuclear path. Recent reports suggest Iran is making progress in developing even more advanced nuclear processing capabilities even though sanctions have been intended to deny Iran access to key materials. Part of the problem is that some countries — notably China — are only paying lip service to sanctions, making them less effective.
Sweeping sanctions have been imposed on Burma for years to thwart the brutal military regime from smothering democracy efforts. The sanctions were enhanced in 2008 after a crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. Though Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi eventually was released from house arrest, and faux elections were held, there is still little freedom in the country.
Near-universal sanctions on North Korea also have not halted Pyongyang’s push to develop and test nuclear weapons. A 2005 financial crackdown on a Macao bank that handled assets for North Korea’s leadership apparently convinced North Korea to return to the negotiating table, but not before all of the illicit funds were returned.
In many ways, in fact, it is not the sanctions themselves but the ending of sanctions that is perceived to have the greatest impact. So the promise of easing sanctions is sometimes used as a lure to induce countries to change behavior. In 2009, for instance, the Obama administration said it would ease some sanctions in the Syria Accountability Act preventing exports of technology and telecommunication equipment and civil aviation parts in its unsuccessful effort to draw Syria into peace talks.
Similarly, President Obama earlier this year said he would review sanctions on Sudan after the recent successful referendum on Southern Sudan independence. “For those who meet all of their obligations, there is a path to greater prosperity and normal relations with the United States, including examining Sudan’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism,” he said.
But sometimes this approach can backfire. In 2008, President Bush removed North Korea from the terrorism list to spur new disarmament talks — a move supported by then-candidate Obama — but North Korea failed to return to talks and even detonated another nuclear device.
Sanctions were imposed on Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but were so sweeping that they were criticized for also harming ordinary Iraqis. The sanctions made it difficult for Iraq to recover from the bombing damage inflicted during the war — and may have thwarted any effort to reconstitute weapons of mass destruction programs — yet Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein retained his grip on power until the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
U.S. sanctions on Cuba also have not made much of a dent on the Castro brothers’ five decades of rule.
There are some possible success stories, but the timeline for success is long. Sanctions on the white-minority regimes of South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) arguably played a role in bringing black majority rule to those countries, but so too did the leaders of those movements. Rhodesia remained an international pariah for 14 years until it could no longer evade sanctions with the help of its neighbors.
Libya also was sanctioned after its involvement in terrorist acts, including the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, and the lure of renewed international oil investment in 2003 — 15 years later -- helped convince Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi to resolve outstanding claims in terrorism-related cases and to give up nascent weapons of mass destruction. But the deal made little change in the nature of Libya’s government, and now the regime faces a fresh set of sanctions as a result of its war with rebels.
The White House did not respond to a request for an explanation of Carney’s statement, so it’s unclear if he was reaching back to the Rhodesian example to support his comment.
The Pinocchio Test
Sanctions are appealing to diplomats because they can signal resolve but do not involve bombs or troops. Certainly some sanctions — especially those in the financial realm — can be effective in thwarting efforts to obtain materials or enrich the pockets of regime officials. But the track record is very mixed. Officials must be prepared to wait a long time for the sanctions to produce success, if ever.
Carney is pushing the envelope when he suggests that new U.S. sanctions, on top of a long list of existing sanctions, would really convince Syrian officials to “change their behavior” in the near future — especially if the intention is to prevent people from being slaughtered in the streets.