The Arab League's and Turkey's decision to impose sanction against Syria: Isolating Damascus

November 29, 2011, Tuesday/ 10:50:00

The Arab League, which has been increasing its pressure in order to realize the reforms to cause a peaceful transition in Syria since October, has decided to impose a series of sanctions to isolate Syrian regime in economic, diplomatic and political terms in the region on November 27th upon the fact that Bashar Assad government did not open up to cooperation.

It is stated that Turkey, which has been supporting the Arab League's decision to impose sanction, will realize the same content sanction decisions with the members of the League in cooperation. The Minister of Foreign Affairs  Ahmet Davutoğlu, who participated in Arab League meetings in Cairo, showed that Turkey will support the sanction decisions of the Arab League by indicating that the Arab countries and Turkey will not stay quiet while the civilians are killed in Syria [1]. In the opening speech of the Arab-Turkish Cooperation Forum Meeting, which was organized in Morocco in parallel with the Arab League Meeting, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Davutoğlu stated that; “In order to put an end to the current crisis in Syria, we will carry on our activities in coordination with the international community, and particularly with the Arab League and the other countries in the region. In this context, Turkey has also been considering to take certain precautions at national level supporting the steps taken by the Arab League, in parallel with the steps foreseen to be taken by the Arab League on November 12th.” Therefore, it is necessary to indicate that the sanction decision, which was taken against the Syrian regime in Cairo, is also a Turkish-Arab joint decision.         

The Sanctions to be Imposed Against Syria

The member countries of the Arab League, which have frequently brought forward the sanction against Syria since October 16th, finally took a step on comprehensive sanctions on November 27th. For the first time in its 66-year history, the Arab League took a decision to impose economic and political sanction against a member country. The primary sanction decision supported by Turkey included a travel ban against scores of senior Syrian officials and to freeze the assets of the Syrian government, and a freeze on Syrian government assets. Thus, the assets of both Syrian government and the companies in cooperation with the regime were frozen. Including Bashar Assad, who claimed to be the defenders of Arab nationalism themselves for many years, many senior Syrian officials have been barred from travelling to other Arab countries; and the assets in these aforesaid countries have been frozen. Beforehand, the similar decisions were taken by the U.S. and the EU countries as well. The sanction decisions, which were declared by the Prime Minister of Qatar and the Minister of Foreign Affairs Hamad bin Cassim el Tani, include to stop dealing with Syria's central bank and the state-owned Syrian Commercial Bank; to suspend the investment projects in Syria financed by the Arab countries; to stop bilateral trade; to stop all the private, commercial and civilian reciprocal flights carried out with Syria; and for the Syrian citizens living abroad to send  controlled money to their relatives. [2]  Related to expanding the sanctions, the Arab League countries decided to hold another extraordinary meeting next week.        

The sanction decisions will also lead to a cease of the projects of private companies, which have their investments in Syria. In this respect, many Gulf-origin and also Turkey-origin companies will have to revise their investment projects related to Syria. In tourism sector; Rotana Hotels and Jumeirah Group, and in banking sector; Qatar National Bank and Bahrein's Al Baraka Group will have to stop their operations in Syria. [3] In the same vein, it has been indicated that the investments carried out from Turkey to Syria will also be stopped. Approximately 1000 semis pass from Turkey to Syria per day. While some of them stay in Syria, the majority of them carry goods to the Middle Eastern and Far Eastern market. Due to the problems to come out during the transit passes, the risk of blocking the route to Syria will negatively affect the companies in the frontier region, Gaziantep in particular. On the other hand, the cease of the investment on the cement plant, which was established in Rakka by Güriş, and on the investment of 280 million Euros on the Orontes (Asi) River is also on the agenda.[4]     

Within the scope of the sanction decisions, which were taken by the U.S. and the EU countries before the Arab League, approximately 80 senior officials in the Syrian government have been blacklisted, and their assets have been frozen. Besides the Head of State Bashar Assad, the Vice-Head of State, Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Internal Affairs, and Minister of Defense are also found among the blacklisted senior officials. The operations and assets of approximately 20 institutions and companies had already been frozen in accordance with the previous sanction decisions. These include private companies owned by people close to the Assad family such as; Syrian National Oil Company, Syrian Commercial Bank and Syria Tel.    

The Influence of the Sanction Decisions 

Before the sanction decision of the Arab League, problems that deeply affected daily life in Syria had already started to come out as a result of the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and EU. The cost of living increased approximately at the rate of 50 per cent. It has been expected that the official unemployment rates, which are currently 8 per cent, will increase up to 20 per cent following the recent sanction decisions. In addition to this, in Syria, where approximately 11 per cent of the population lives at the threshold of poverty, this rate has been expected to dramatically rise after these recent developments. While approximately 50 thousand people, who work in tourism sector, lose their jobs as a result of the crisis in the first stage; this figure is expected to rise up to 100 thousands in a short period of time. Approximately 2 million Syrian work is tourism sector, and it is indicated that tourism contributes to the national income of the country approximately at the rate of 12 per cent. According to the data of the Syrian Ministry of Tourism, the total amount of tourists visiting Syria in 2010 is 8 million 545 thousand 849 people. Approximately 20 per cent of these visitors are composed of the visitors coming from Turkey. Upon the crisis and sanction decisions, it has been seen that the tourism sector has come to a standstill. [5]            

It is estimated that the Arab countries compose 53 per cent of the total exportation of Syria. And the contribution of the EU countries is approximately 30 per cent. Around 88 per cent of the exportation to the EU is composed of the oil products. It has been seen that Syria has lost approximately 60 per cent of its market of exportation upon the sanctions imposed by the two actors. [6] Therefore, both public and private companies have been expected to go through severe economic problems.    

When we take a look at the trade partners of Syria, we see a table like below. [7]

Countries Syria Imports From (%) Countries Syria Exports To (%)

EU countries 18.7 To Iraq 30.3

Saudi Arabia 11.3 EU countries29.0

China 10.7 Lebanon 10.1

Turkey 8.1 Saudi Arabia 5.0

UAE  5.5 Turkey 4.1.

Russian Federation 4.7 Kuwait 3.3

Iran 4.1 UAE 2.9

In the face of sanction decisions taken by the Arab League, 19 countries directly supported the sanction decision during the Arab League meeting, where Iraq abstained, and in which Lebanon did not participate. Some of those demanded the Syrian citizens to leave the country. On the official website of the Turkey Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it was requested not to pay a visit to Syria, if not necessary.    

The fact that the negative effects of the sanction decisions, which will lead to the economic and political isolation of Syria, have started to be directly and severely felt on the Syrian people has been pointed out. Following the sanction decisions of the U.S. and the EU countries on the energy sector, the issue of processed oil product emerged in Syria; and in parallel with this, long queues have started to be seen in gas stations. After the crisis, kitchen gas prices have increased from 7 dollars to 20 dollars. [8] Crude oil sales, which composes the majority of the country's income, has come to the standstill. The current crude oil production in Syria has declined to some 100 thousand barrels per day. This rate was about 400 thousand barrels, before the sanctions decisions. [9]           

The total reserve of the Syrian Central Bank is approximately 17.4 billion dollars. This figure rises up to 20.5 billion dollars with the gold reserve. The market has been intervened for four times with dollar sales upon the crisis. As financial pressure will be gone through in the balance of payments in short term, payment problems will come out in product sales from the foreign countries. Because of  the payment problems, the Syrian companies not related to the regime will also go through severe problems on purchasing goods from the countries, which have not taken sanction decisions, such as; Iraq or Lebanon. [10]

The total exportation of Syria is 14 billion dollars. As understood from the table above, she has lost approximately 60 per cent of its market of exportation. In the country's exportation, the oil incomes are approximately 4 billion dollars. Although the exportation channels through Iraq and Lebanon are open, the expected use of this market is quite difficult because of the issue of balance of payments. [11] Iran and Russia's purchasing oil from Syria is on the agenda. However, constant crude oil purchase will be hard for the Russian companies, due to the international sanctions and the  problems in payment balances. In addition to this, resorting to Far Eastern market also seems to be too hard, as the Syrian crude oil quality does not fit to Chinese refineries. Although it is alleged that Iran directly provided Syria with billions of dollars of financial assistance; it is considered not to be a sustainable policy, when the current problems of the Iranian economy are taken into consideration.          

The fact that the UK issued a call to the members of the UN Security Council for taking a sanction decision supporting the Arab League's decision soon after the sanction decision of the Arab League,  is interesting. 

It is indicated that UK and France will start to work on a new sanction decision by the UN. Therefore, despite the statement claiming that the Syrian people will not be affected by the sanctions imposed by the Arab League and Turkey; it is impossible for the Syrian people not to be affected by these measures.  

In addition to this, the Arab League and Turkey should assume more active roles in the solution of the Syrian crisis. Nevertheless, in order to do so, besides the direct investments, they should also develop their relations with certain Syrian groups currently standing behind the regime and having concerns on the overthrown of the regime; and they should persuade the aforesaid groups. In order for the Syrian National Council or similar opposition movements to clearly and explicitly put forward their plans related to the post-Bashar Assad era, Turkey and the Arab League should work in cooperation. More clearly, the Syrian Christians, Druses, Alawites, Shi'ites, Ismailis, and the Kurdish should be persuaded that they will safely live in Syria in the post-Bashar Assad era as well, and that their fundamental rights and freedoms will be guaranteed in constitutional terms by the countries in the region. Since March 17th, a comprehensive project for the aforesaid groups has not been put forth yet; and in fact, strong messages putting forward that the security of their lives and properties will be guaranteed and that they will be provided with a position in the political system have not been given either. Of course, all these show that Bashar Assad will be able to resist despite the sanction decisions. In order for this problem to be solved without any military intervention and civil war, the countries in the region should organize the Syrian opposition in a way that really spans all the groups by conducting a joint work on a democratic and secular Syria. Otherwise, the opposition depending on a certain part of the Syrian society will overthrow the regime, and it will not be possible to stabilize the country.                       

[1] The Daily Star News, “Arab League agrees sanctions on Syria”, 28, 2011, Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2011/Nov-27/155334-arab-league-approves-sanctions-on-syria.ashx#ixzz1exuNTX73

[2] Sana News, http://www.sana.sy/tur/237/2011/11/27/384546.htm

[3]Phil Sands, “Arab League agrees sweeping sanctions on Syria”, The National News, Nov 28, 2011 http://www.thenational.ae/news/worldwide/middle-east/arab-league-agrees-sweeping-sanctions-on-syria

[4] Özlem Tür, “2000’lerde Türkiye - Suriye İlişkilerinin Siyasi-Ekonomisi”, Orta Doğu Analiz, cilt: 3, Sayı:31-32, s. 36

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bassel Oudat, “Sanctions begin to bite”, Al Ahram Weekly, 24 - 30 November 2011 Issue No. 1073, http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2011/1073/re8.htm

[7] http://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2006/september/tradoc_113451.pdf, S. 4

[8] http://www.thenational.ae/news/worldwide/middle-east/arab-league-agrees-sweeping-sanctions-on-syria

[9] CIA World Fact Book, “Syria” https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/sy.html

[10] http://yallafinance.com/2011/08/29/sanctions-against-syria-harm-the-people/

[11] http://ec.europa.eu/trade/creating-opportunities/bilateral-relations/countries/syria/; http://othersuns.wordpress.com/2011/08/29/syria-the-effect-of-eu-oil-sanctions-on-the-economy-and-the-assad-regime/

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Veysel AYHAN, ORSAM Middle East Advisor, Abant Izzet Baysal Uni. Department of International Relations

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