Will International Sanctions Help Syrians?

A package of tough new economic sanctions imposed this week by the Arab League is another blow to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. But will international pressure really help the people of Syria? Melissa Block talks with Kimberly Ann Elliott, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. Elliott co-authored a case study on sanctions against Syria that was published by the Peterson Institute.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Now, more on those economic sanctions imposed by the Arab League. It is an unprecedented action for the league to take against a member state, and that's after suspending Syria's participation in the regional group.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

These new sanctions follow those already imposed by the United States and the European Union. So what are the effects? Kimberly Elliott has studied the impact of sanctions against Syria. She's a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development here in Washington. Thanks for coming in.

KIMBERLY ELLIOTT: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Why don't you walk us through just what these new sanctions imposed by the Arab League are intended to do.

ELLIOTT: Well, the new sanctions, first of all, ban travel by Syrian officials, government officials. They freeze some of their assets that are held in Arab countries. They ban funding for projects in Syria with the government. And then they also - and this is kind of a new sanction and I think untested - they banned transactions with the central bank, which could have far-reaching effects on Syria's ability to finance trade, as well as investment and other transactions.

BLOCK: There are a bunch of loopholes or exemptions from these sanctions, including two of the Arab League member states, Iraq and Lebanon, who say they won't participate. Let's talk about Iraq, 'cause that is a huge trading partner with Syria and they are not taking part in these sanctions, so isn't that just a big hole in what the Arab League is trying to do?

ELLIOTT: Well, not necessarily. I think the principal impact, at least in the short to medium run, of what the Arab League is doing is really political. The fact that they are taking this action against a fellow member is sending a signal to Syria that they're really not going to be able to get along doing what they're doing anymore. So the economic impact in some sense is secondary.

Having said that, the new sanctions are also probably, again in the short run, less important than the sanctions that were already imposed by the European Union and the United States, because that affected most of Syria's oil exports, which are somewhere between, you know, half to two-thirds of their total exports. So what that does is it deprives them of foreign exchange, of revenues that they can use to buy the imports they need.

BLOCK: There are a number of big players that are not part of these sanctions - Iran being one, also Russia and China, who have long-standing ties with the Syrian regime. How do you see the fact that they're not taking part in these sanctions affecting the equation there?

ELLIOTT: I think there are two parts to Russia and China opposing sanctions. One is that they can provide political cover for Syria and block any action at the United Nations. More directly, economically, both Russia and China export far more to Syria than they buy from Syria. So what Russia and/or China could do if they wanted to help Syria out is just to continue letting that trade go on and provide credit to Syria to buy the things they're already buying from Russia and China, rather than demanding full payment.

BLOCK: When you think about the impact of the sanctions, and think about whom they're most hurting, and the criticism of sanctions is that invariably they affect the people there designed to help - the common people - and the regime emerges unscathed. Is that happening in Syria?

ELLIOTT: I don't think it is entirely. Two things: One is in the short run there are no direct sanctions on exports to Syria. And humanitarian food and medicines, that sort of thing, are explicitly exempt from the Arab League sanctions, so there's not a direct impact.

Clearly though, these are having broader impacts on growth. I just saw an estimate that the official growth rate is now instead of being two percent positive, is going to be three percent negative. So there are going to be big impacts on the economy as a whole. And that will have effects on the population, obviously, but it's more indirect than the direct.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Kimberly Elliott who co-authored a case study on sanctions against Syria that was published by the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Thanks for coming in.

ELLIOTT: Thank you, Melissa.

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