Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu held a press conference on Wednesday morning to announce the first round of sanctions that Turkey has decided to implement against Syria with a view to stepping up regional and international pressure on the Syrian administration, which has been using violence on its own people and preventing the administration from tyrannizing the Syrians.
A brief examination of these sanctions, which were drafted with “meticulous care” so as to cause minimal harm to innocent Syrians, shows that they deserve to be characterized as “smart sanctions.” I hope they are implemented with equal care and sensibility. Turkey openly declared that it will act with extreme caution so that the measures it plans to implement against the Assad administration do not hurt the Syrian people as it believes they should not be penalized for the faults of the Damascus administration. In this context, those things the Syrian people may need to maintain their daily lives have been left outside the scope of sanctions, while various things the Syrian regime may use to brutalize its people or which may boost its capabilities have been targeted by these sanctions.
In line with the nine-item list of sanctions targeting the Syrian administration, Turkey has suspended the Turkish-Syrian High Level Strategic Cooperation Council until a legitimate administration at peace with its people takes office in Syria. Turkey also introduced travel bans on several officials from the core Syrian leadership who have been accused of using violence and illegal practices against the Syrian people and has frozen their assets in Turkey. Similar measures were launched against some leading businessmen who are known to be firm supporters of the Syrian regime. In addition to the suspension of the sale and provision of all kinds of arms and military equipment to the Syrian military, Turkey also decided to block any transfer of arms and military equipment from third countries to Syria through Turkish territory, airspace and territorial waters in compliance with international law. Turkey’s sanctions also include the suspension of ties with the Central Bank of Syria, freezing the financial assets of the Syrian government in Turkey, ceasing to extend loans to the Syrian government, halting transactions with the Commercial Bank of Syria with the exception of transactions currently in progress and announcing the suspension of a Turkish Eximbank loan agreement for the financing of infrastructure projects in Syria.
As you know, sanctions can simply be described as a set of actions implemented to stop an action from being taken by a strong actor against a weak one or to ensure that the faults of the strong actor are corrected. They are implemented in order to warn or manipulate a state without resorting to war. However, sanctions may miss the target and cause harm to an unintended target. Indeed, in the past, embargoes imposed on Iraq did nothing to put the targeted Saddam Hussein regime behind the eight ball, but rather added to the existing misery of the Iraqi people. Likewise, the arms embargo against Bosnia and Herzegovina paved the way for massacres and proved lethal to Muslim Bosnians because Serbs and Croats had already armed themselves to the full. To avoid similar paradoxical outcomes in Syria, “smart sanctions,” whose possible effects have been assessed at length, not ordinary ones, must be implemented. Most naturally, smart sanctions target the political elites in the country concerned, and they should be geared to minimize damage to women, children and the elderly.
It is no doubt that all sanctions -- universally, regionally or individually implemented -- must try to avoid doing any harm to civilians. Moreover, this principle must be observed not only in physical, economic and financial sanctions, but also in psychological and political sanctions. All sanctions that may be implemented in the form of boycotts, embargoes, blockades, retorsion, reprisal or retaliation, too, must comply with “smart sanctions” specifications.
On the other hand, it is clear that the most common forms of international sanctions are historically embargoes and blockades. We see that both forms of sanctions are used not only in peacetime but also in wartime. The main reason for this is that when the international community imposes restrictions on the imports and exports of a country, the said country faces significant difficulties in economic, military and political terms. However, there are several conditions that must be fulfilled before an embargo is successfully implemented. The embargoed commodities should be vitally important for the target country, they should not be easily substitutable within the country and there should not be any third countries from which the said country can easily procure them.
Now, given that the sanctions the Arab League announced against Syria were not supported by its neighbors Iraq and Lebanon, it is obvious that goods and services embargoed by Turkey and other countries will easily be procured by the Damascus administration via Iraq and Lebanon. Acting as the breaker of international sanctions, Iraq and Lebanon offer Syria the possibility of obtaining goods and services that are critically important for the country. Moreover, taking into consideration the fact that Iran, Russia and China, which insist on siding with the Assad regime, will make use of this access route to Syria, it can be argued that the very effectiveness of these sanctions is questionable. Under the current setting, due to the veto powers China and Russia enjoy at the United Nations Security Council, it seems virtually impossible to pass a universal sanction resolution to eliminate any country’s sanction-breaking role by referring to Articles 41 and 42 of the UN Charter.
Still, according to experts, it is more rational to implement the sanctions before the illegal action starts rather than to eliminate the illegal action after it has already begun. In other words, waiting for the illegal action to start in order to resort to the option of sanctions minimizes the effectiveness of those sanctions. In the case of Syria, we can safely assert that sanctions are being implemented with much delay. Any sanction implemented after the bloodthirsty Assad regime set off on a road of no return, unfortunately, runs the risk of boosting Damascus’ tyranny by exacerbating the regime’s feeling of being backed into a corner.
From another perspective, it can be argued that international sanctions --which are capable of preventing a potential war and settling the problem at hand -- may, as in the case of embargoes imposed on Iraq, have destructive effects on the people of the targeted country similar to those of war; therefore, implementing them may be no different from waging war. The fact that as a result of the adverse effects of the embargoes imposed on Iraq, 225,000 Iraqi children under five died between 1990 and 1998 should be enough to remind us that all sanctions must be as smart as possible.
* This article makes use of Bilal Karabulut’s “Uluslararası Yaptırımların Hukuksal Bir Analizi”(Uluslararası Hukuk ve Politika Dergisi, Vol.3, Issue 12, 2007, pp. 15-40).