Last Updated: Sat Sep 03, 2011 18:08 pm (KSA) 15:08 pm (GMT)

Eman El-shenawi: EU sanctions try to hit Assad where it hurts

The European Union aims to land an Assad bullseye with oil sanctions. (Illustration by Farwa Rizwan)
The European Union aims to land an Assad bullseye with oil sanctions. (Illustration by Farwa Rizwan)

The European Union is throwing a few darts at an Assad-shaped board. It’s aiming for the center target, a bullseye, but it may actually be landing nowhere near.

By imposing sanctions on Syrian oil exports, the EU believes it has gone “straight to the heart of the regime,” as the Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal said in a meeting on Friday.

In an effort to get tough on President Bashar al-Assad’s government in response to the deadly attacks on civilian protesters that have been taking place since a political uprising began in Syria in mid-March, the EU has banned the importation of Syrian oil.

The EU normally imports 95 percent of the crisis-swept country’s oil and has followed in the footsteps of the United States, which had already halted Syrian oil imports.

President Assad’s embattled regime is accused of killing more than 2,000 people since the protests erupted. But is this particular sanction really hitting the Syrian regime where it hurts? On the political front, perhaps not so much.

Assad has already shrugged off international condemnation of his crackdown on civilians. In his most recent interview, aired on Syrian state television almost two weeks ago, Assad directly responded to the criticism.

“We tell them that their words are worthless … Such remarks should not be made about a president who was chosen by the Syrian people and who was not put in office by the West, a president who was not made in the United States,” he said, referring to calls for him to relinquish power from Britain, France, Germany and the United States.

As the Assad regime clings to power, it remains unclear what the government hopes for the future regarding foreign relations. It would be inane to assume that Assad’s diplomatic ties will be rebuilt in the short term if he remains in office, and so sanctions will not intimidate the regime on the “friendly” front. Assad is playing the “I don’t care” card and world leaders plotting against him with oil sanctions will not leave him pining over lost friends and powerful allies anytime soon.

The EU knows this too; lost diplomatic ties won’t ruffle Assad’s feathers too much, and so they have perhaps agreed that an economic punch would work better. Syria typically exports about 150,000 barrels a day to the EU, mainly to Italy, Germany and France. This brought in revenue of $3.2 billion in 2010.

But just how effective is this sanction?

The country’s oil revenues account for only 25 percent of Syria’s state revenue. It is not a major oil-producing country (ranked 33rd in the world, producing an estimated 400,000 barrels per day) and sanctions would not hit Syria as hard as they hit, for example, Libya, another country going through a similar “Arab Spring” story. Oil sanctions on Libya have now been officially lifted after world leaders held a conference in Paris on Thursday and decided that the country’s Transitional Council needed to be financially supported if it is going to rebuild Libya.

Oil sanctions, therefore, will not be much of an incentive for Assad to begin to contemplate humane methods of political reform and tackling protests, and nor were they meant to be, perhaps.

The EU has pushed forward these sanctions to further voice its condemnation of the regime, not to rein in Assad. After all, sanctions and the freezing of assets have been the EU’s weapon of choice against the political crises recently stirring in the Arab world.

“What we are seeing is an attempt by Western governments to be seen to be doing something – to use rhetoric, sanctions, everything short of military action, to give the impression that they really are serious about pressing for change in Syria,” wrote BBC correspondent Owen Bennett-Jones.

But we have seen no indication that these sanctions have made Assad any weaker, Bennett-Jones notes.

The EU will not score a bullseye with oil sanctions, nor will it deeply effect the Assad regime economically, but this could be a preliminary tactic for tougher action ahead.

Indeed, Western planes may fly in soon, in a mission to protect the Syrian people and crack down on the regime, but for now, the European Union is playing nice, it seems, wanting to be able to at least say it “tried” with Assad.

(Eman El-Shenawi, a writer at Al Arabiya English, can be reached at: eman.elshenawi@mbc.net.)

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