A Brief History of Sanctions

Yesterday the combined forces of Russia and China vetoed the already weakened UN Security Council Resolution which would have put in place the legal permission for sanctions against Syria.  The fallout to this has been immediate and (considering the usual diplomatic guff about “not necessarily to our advantage”) shockingly blunt.  Alain Juppé in particular, speaking yesterday, insisted that France was still going to implement sanctions, and a number of other Western nations have expressed similar intentions.  As a curious side note, Turkey’s move to ditch a hostile Europe and once again take charge of its role in the Arab world, manifested this year by cautious but genuine support of the revolutions, has placed it squarely in the same diplomatic camp as the same Western nations whose approval this direction of policy was supposed to ensure it did not need to court.

However, I cannot deny that I am somewhat glad that this motion did not pass, as – I suspect – will be a lot of Arabs and others following the Middle East.  The principle fault in the West’s attitude to the Middle East is our sheer ignorance of history in an area where it is still so important.  For us, ten years is an age.  In the Middle East, events that happened 100 years ago are current.  I would hasten to emphasise that this is not because of some peculiarly Arab ability to ‘bear a grudge’ or anything like that – the West would find history just as urgent if it had a tangible everyday effect on our lives.  But aside from occasional episodes of Fawlty Towers, even an event as shattering as the Second World War, which began fewer than 80 years ago, is culturally irrelevant.  Even the Cold War has so little outward relevance to our dealings with the Russians that until I was 8 I thought it had taken place in the 1600s.  But in the Arab World, talk of sanctions has inevitably brought up discussion of the sanctions campaign against Iraq which prevented the country from rebuilding hospitals and power stations after the Gulf War and led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, which was glibly dismissed by Madeleine Albright’s horrifying words “We think the price is worth it”.  I am particularly impressed and surprised by the reminders in the media – even in a cursory way – to what talk of fresh sanctions might evoke in the Middle East this time round.

However – and this is the really important part – what do the Syrians think? Most editorials and articles have tended to survey only whichever activist du jour supports the angle they are going for, with perhaps a brief nod towards the existence of dissenting opinions.  But this alone tells us more than we know.  The fabled Diversity of Interests that was brought up time and again as a reason why the protesters in Egypt and Libya would be unable to succeed has been obliterated from public consciousness when it comes to Syria.  In other words, there is no clear position of the Syrian people, or even of the Syrian protesters against the government, on the issue of sanctions.  Some support it, and some don’t.  This is natural, pluralistic, and healthy.  It does mean, however, that Western nations cannot take any steps while claiming to act according to the wishes of “the Syrian people”, even if that phrase tacitly means “the Syrian anti-government protesters”.

In the last few days, the Syrian situation has become ever more sticky.  Turkey is getting edgy, demands for a no-fly zone have been raised, Iran privately acknowledged some time ago that Assad would not be around forever, but very little movement is happening on the ground.  In the short term, decisive action from the outside world might help, and it might not.  But it is not from the West that such action is required.  Assad already knows that a significant portion of the world is against him, just as the protesters know that that same portion supports them.  Sanctions will not change that.  What is needed now is decisive action from the Syrian opposition, along with those who are protesting.  This will be hard to achieve, but it is still possible provided that the movement focuses on the areas of agreement (ie. kicking out Assad and the Ba’th party) and avoids sectarianism.  But sanctions – unless called for by a convincing majority of Syrian citizens – will only create a further political divide where there are already so many others to overcome.

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