Monday, November 28, 2011

Economic Sanctions and the Threat of Force in Syria

The Arab League agreed today to impose economic sanctions against the Syrian government. According to this article, the sanctions ban travel by governmental officials, freeze Syrian assets, ban financial transactions with the Syrian central bank, and end commercial exchanges with the government. These efforts join those by the U.S. and the E.U., who have already imposed sanctions on Syria.

The debate is still out on the effectiveness of economic sanctions. One idea regarding effective sanctions is that the threat of greater action must be present. According to Daniel Drezner’s Conflict Expectations Model, sanctions backed by the real threat of force (and with a wide gap in costs; I know, this isn’t Econ Statecraft, but it is important) can produce at least moderate concessions. Of course, this must be tempered. If the adversary believes force is inevitable, he or she may not see the need in conceding anything. It could even lead to a preemptive strike in some situations.

The actual goal of a sanction is important. Sanctions can compel, deter, or signal a regime. For example, in regards to Syria, they are not ‘intended’ to compel al-Assad to step down. Instead, their purpose is to coerce the Syrian government into abiding by the peace agreement it signed on November 2.

These ideas are similar to Schelling’s “compellence” argument. With Schelling, the goal of the threat of force is to reveal to the enemy what that force can do to him if he does not comply. The idea is to leave the enemy with something more to lose. If you don’t, the enemy has no reason to accept your demands, and war could be inevitable. It seems that economic sanctions perform a similar function: the costs they incur are intended to be so great as to force concessions from a government. In both cases, simply acquiescing would remove the pressure placed on the regime. I guess the similarities between the use of force and the use of sanctions are why it’s considered economic warfare.

To some, it seems that economic sanctions are a way to avoid costly and difficult military solutions to problems. To others, economic sanctions are a useful tool to ratchet up pressure on a regime before more forceful actions are taken. I tend to fall into the latter category. But knowing when to make the transition to force is difficult; there will always be those who claim that other measures should be taken before resorting to war.

In Syria’s case, perhaps it is already too late. Perhaps the regime believes that, at this point, it will collapse if it abides by the peace agreement mentioned above. But that is the reality that Assad brought on himself when he chose to quell the rebellion instead of initiating reforms. By doing that, he turned what started out as a request for reforms into an outright call for his removal from power.

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