BEIRUT — Turkey announced wide-ranging sanctions against Syria on Wednesday in response to the Syrian government’s continuing military crackdown on protests.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu outlined measures including a freeze on Syrian assets in Turkey and a ban on transactions with the Syrian central bank, capping an eight-day stretch in which Turkish rhetoric against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad turned increasingly critical.
The sanctions by Turkey, one of Syria’s top trading partners, come as the Arab League and the European Union are enacting their own punitive measures — a triple blow that highlights the growing isolation of the Damascus government and that could significantly hurt Syria’s economy.
In Washington, the White House commended the Turkish government for imposing the sanctions, which it said will “undoubtedly increase the pressure on the Syrian regime.”
In a statement, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said that “the leadership shown by Turkey in response to the brutality and violation of the fundamental rights of the Syrian people will isolate the Assad regime and send a strong message to Assad and his circle that their actions are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”
Syria’s trade and business sectors are already suffering from earlier sanctions and months of unrest. The country’s once-lucrative tourism industry is essentially ruined, and trade with the European Union is down significantly. Syria once sold 90 percent of its crude oil to E.U. countries.
On Thursday, the E.U. is set to impose the latest of several rounds of sanctions, directly affecting Syria’s oil industry and telecommunications sector and targeting a number of individuals, in addition to officials already listed.
The 22-nation Arab League announced its own sanction s last weekend. Although those restrictions are likely to be enforced inconsistently by Arab countries, they began to bite Wednesday, the Reuters news agency reported.
The Turkish sanctions could be politically difficult to implement in Turkey. A report by the International Crisis Group released in November noted that the country’s economic growth rate was set to decline to 2.2 percent next year, a slowdown that would be exacerbated by the loss of Syrian business.
Although Turkish officials made clear in the past that they reject a military solution to the Syrian problem, their rhetoric has sharpened recently. In a television interview broadcast Tuesday, Davutoglu said that if oppression continues, “Turkey remains ready for all possible scenarios.”
Ibrahim Saif, an economist with the Carnegie Middle East Center, said the sanctions will not be immediately devastating but will contribute to incremental pressure already being felt.
Though Turkey announced that it is “imposing sanctions officially,” he said, “in practice this was put in process a while ago by limiting trade, people and goods on the border, and a strong message to Turkish banks to stop trading with Syrian ones.”
Saif pointed out that Iraq, Syria’s biggest trading partner, and Lebanon, whose banking sector has billions of dollars’ worth of assets in Syria, are unlikely to halt their commercial activity yet. And he said Russia and China would probably veto any global economic measures proposed at the United Nations.
Over the past seven years, Turkey has become a huge trading partner of Syria’s, and the sudden loss of Turkish business is likely to deal a heavy blow to the Syrian business sector, particularly in the larger cities and in the northern part of the country along the Turkish border.
Since a free-trade agreement was signed between the two countries in 2004 as part of an economic liberalization program led by Assad, trade volume has increased from about $750 million annually to $2.2 billion last year, according to the Turkish Foreign Ministry.
A key bastion of support for Assad is Syria’s merchant class, which has benefited from his economic reforms and has enjoyed an improved quality of life in Damascus and in Aleppo.There, well-off residents have been insulated from high levels of rural poverty, which have worsened after years of drought.
If the E.U., Arab and Turkish sanctions weigh heavily on the Syrian business community, that support could quickly erode, analysts said.