“Isolation Strategy”: Sanctions an EU-US Measure to Suffocate Assad

Meeting of the negotiating body with the mini-group - 25 of July 2019 (Twitter)

Meeting of the negotiating body with the mini-group - 25 of July 2019 (Twitter)


As the Syrian regime continues to obstruct and delay a political solution, and refuses to make any concession leading to an end to the conflict, the United States and its European allies are moving to implement an “isolation strategy” announced by US special envoy to Syria, James Jeffrey, in September 2018.

The US strategy is based on imposing severe international sanctions on the Syrian regime, and economically besieging it. It aims to “make life as miserable as possible for that flopping cadaver of a regime and let the Russians and Iranians, who made this mess, get out of it,” according to Jeffrey. He stressed that if sanctions were not approved by the United Nations Security Council, Washington will unilaterally go through with them along with the European Union.

Since the beginning of this year, the United States aggressively pursued this strategy. This is reflected in the tightening of the screws on the regime and those affiliated with it, by imposing sanctions on companies and business personalities working for the regime and supporting or carrying out its agenda.

On 21 January, the European Union expanded its target list of sanctions against the regime, adding the names of 11 Syrian businessmen and five entities. Most of them are investors in the Marota City project in Damascus, which the regime government calls “Syria’s long-awaited dream.”

On March 4, the seven new ministers in the regime’s government were added to the sanctions list, most notably Interior Minister Mohammed Khalid Rahmoun.

On April 11, the US Treasury Department imposed economic sanctions on 16 individuals and entities close to Assad, most notably Syrian businessman Samer Foz and the company BS Offshore owned by the Qaterji family, which is in the business of importing oil.

Sanctions in Contrast to the Russian Reconstruction Narrative

These sanctions were preceded with mobilization by Syrian human rights centers and organizations. Over the past months, these organizations pursued companies and banks that support the Syrian regime, investigated them and revealed relationships between these companies and the regime, not only at the scope of Syria, as their research extended to international companies.

These sanctions are a “card” in the hands of the European Union and the United States. They are employing to pressure the Syrian regime and Russia, as the latter attempts to promote the reconstruction process, according to the director of the Syrian Legal Development Programme, Ibrahim Olabi. In an interview with Enab Baladi, Olabi said that the armed conflict in Syria has receded, but that the human rights battle continues while facing many difficulties, and as sanctions remain the only means of pressuring and confronting the regime and its allies.

He attributed the tendency of human rights organizations to pay attention to sanctions to several factors, the most important of which is countering the reconstruction narrative advocated by Russia, which promulgates refugee return and lifting of sanctions. They also aim to punish the businessmen and traders who supported the system in recent years, and who now wish to cash in on their loyalty to the regime on the account of crimes the latter committed.

This “reconstruction” effort also relates to forced displacement, and attempts to rebuild areas whose locals have been vacated from their land. It is, therefore, necessary to counter companies engaged in attempts to recover these areas, and cover up war crimes that have taken place there, whose contracts were awarded due to their support of the regime.

Olabi explained the process of tracing targeted companies, saying that efforts within the European Union include financial investigations of the person or company targeted and their relationship with the regime. As such, an integrated casefile is prepared which meets on the highest legal and human rights standards, and is then delivered to the European Union entities involved in economic sanctions. He stressed that this process takes several technical stages, sessions and meetings, and follows several steps. This is required to impose strict sanctions that do not allow offenders to be removed from the sanctions list if they objected or petitioned.

He stressed that the goal is not to harm Syrian citizen or undermine the Syrian economy, but to mount pressure as not to allow war criminals to profit from the crimes they have committed in Syria. Therefore, the sanctions are a means of reducing the financing of human rights violations, and not an end in themselves.

Political Mobilization to Impose Economic Sanctions

This latest move was not only done by human rights organizations, but also by political platforms that demanded information on any companies or banks that supported Assad.

The head of the High Negotiations Committee, Nasr Hariri, inquired about information on any persons, companies or banks affiliated with the Syrian regime.

Through his Twitter account, Hariri said on June 25 that there is a team in the Committee that collects information about individuals, organizations, companies, associations and banks affiliated to the regime which support its economic capacities used to oppress the Syrian people.

The Committee’s request had the aim of besieging these companies, banks and personalities close to Assad, and trying them for their contribution to crimes committed against Syria and its people, according to the spokesman of the Committee, Yahya al-Aridi.

In an interview with Enab Baladi, al-Aridi said that during the meeting of the mini-group on 25 June, which includes the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, the Committee discussed sanctions on these companies, according to al-Aridi who promised to “narrow the land under these criminals”

What Are Economic Sanctions?

Sanctions are defined as restrictive measures adopted by international organizations or states with the aim of encouraging change in the policy or behavior of another state, entity or individuals. The two principal international organizations imposing such sanctions are the United Nations and the European Union, according to a member of the Syrian Legal Development Programme Muhannad Sharbati, speaking to Enab Baladi.

Sharbati stressed that these sanctions imposed by the United Nations and the European Union are different from unilateral sanctions that some states may impose, by reference to their national legislation, on individuals or other states as part of their foreign policy or national security objectives. An example of the latter are US sanctions on Syria. In contrast, EU sanctions are subject to international law, in particular, the UN Charter and European laws, while US sanctions are subject to national laws.

Each state has the right to independently formulate its trade policies and take such measures (including sanctions) as it deems appropriate for the maintenance of its national security and its economic and political interests. This is a right of nation states based on the principle of sovereignty, which reflects the right of states to determine their fate and their relations and laws as they wish, and without intervention from other states. It is, therefore, the right of any state to impose a ban on commercial transactions with another state, entity or individual of another state, or to impose a ban on certain commercial operations, if it considers that its interests so require. Such sanctions may be appealed to the national jurisdiction of the state which imposed the measures.

According to Sharabati, some legal scholars consider that the United Nations Charter may be a restriction on the right of states to impose unilateral economic sanctions on other states. Article 2 of the Charter states that “All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.” It also states that “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

However, the most prevalent view in international law does not consider the imposition of unilateral economic sanctions by states against others to be “use of force” as expressed by Article 2 of the UN Charter. On the contrary, many legal scholars view economic sanctions as an effective means used by states to influence the policies of other states and force them to respect human rights, peacefully and without resorting to the use of force.

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