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Can New Sanctions Help Topple Assad's Regime?

A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows President Bashar al-Assad addressing the country on August 17.
AFP/Getty Images
A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows President Bashar al-Assad addressing the country on August 17.

As soon as President Obama announced new sanctions on Syria, a lot of the reaction was a big, "So what?"

It's a natural question to wonder if cutting off economic ties with a country can truly stop an authoritarian regime from attacking its own people and if it can truly get it to give up power after four decades of family rule, as Obama demanded.

We spoke to George A. Lopez, the Hesburgh Chair in Peace Studies at Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. Lopez is just off a 10-month term on the U.N. Panel of Experts for monitoring sanctions on North Korea.


Lopez explained the new sanctions imposed by the U.S., which freeze all Syrian assets controlled by U.S. institutions and prohibit any economic contact with Syria by any U.S. people, are at the outer edge as far as sanctions go. They are "severe" said Lopez.

The way Lopez sees it, the condemnation issued by the European countries earlier, signify that they will join the U.S. issuing strong sanctions and he believes this will have a strong effect on Assad.

If you stop buying oil and stop selling weapons to the regime, you're cutting off his lifeline, said Lopez. The question — the big question — is what is tipping point that will peel off Assad's inner circle? Lopez says Assad's inner circle is always calculating "how much access to munitions, and cash" do we have to pay for mercenaries and weapons and the such? As soon as they think that money is running out, they'll turn on Assad.

"We may not know enough to know what the tipping point is but the bet is that the tipping point is 30 to 60 days away," said Lopez.

What Lopez is saying is that he believes the U.S. and its allies are adding pressure because they believe Assad is at a weak point. Again, skeptics might shake their heads and say no way — economic sanctions don't have that kind of effect.


But Lopez argues that Syria is different. Here's why:

-- Moammar Gaddafi had a massive amount of cash on hand. Lopez believes Assad may have maybe half as much.

-- At the beginning of the conflict, said Lopez, Assad borrowed U.S. dollars from his financiers. "I don't know if that was a request as a loyalty test or to lessen the resources of his own rivals, but part of it is that they didn't have as much access to ready cash."

-- The situation in Libya is changing quickly. The rebels are as close to Tripoli as they've ever been and if something changes in that country, it would have a huge psychological effect on Assad as well as the opposition.

-- Syria has significant economic ties to Europe. If strong sanctions are put in place, as Lopez predicts, it "will clarify what the cost" of supporting Assad for the elites. And that could tip them against Assad.

One more interesting thing that Lopez noted is that he doesn't expect much to come out of the U.N. Security Council meeting this afternoon. Lopez said the West has kept saying this is no Libya and that leaves room for Turkey and Saudi Arabia to continue applying pressure to Syria. Lopez says he expects a statement of strong condemnation without any sanctions because of strong opposition from Russia and China.

He said Brazil and India have come around because they have tried diplomacy but have faced "intransigence."

But Russia and China are opposed to any sanctions, in some ways, he thinks, because the protests in Syria have been largely peaceful.

"A successful unarmed rebellion," said Lopez, "is always Russia and China's worst fear."

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