The U.S. and several European allies have called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish power, but American leverage over the Baathist dictatorship remains as minimal as ever. The administration's slow pace in reaching this decision has elicited scorn from Republican hawks and even some Democrats eager to take a "tough" stand against Assad. But a cautious American response was appropriate to make it possible to coordinate with Turkey and governments in Europe that have much greater economic and political influence in Syria. Absent meaningful action on the part of those states, there is little or no influence that the U.S. can have on the Syrian government.
U.S. economic sanctions have limited effect because there was never much of an American relationship with Syria to sever. Syria's oil and gas exports are small, and 95 percent go to European countries. Still, export sales account for a third of state revenues, so cutting Syria off from its European markets would punish the regime. The problem is, the Syrian population would also suffer because of this, which may dissuade some European states from agreeing to take action.
U.S. economic sanctions have limited effect because there was never much of an American relationship with Syria to sever.
The Western hope is that choking off revenues and interfering with trade will undermine the regime and drive business interests to turn against Assad. An equally likely outcome is that Iran will keep shoring up Assad to minimize the impact of sanctions, and cautious businessmen in Syria will be unwilling to take the risks of siding with a fragmented opposition. Economic sanctions have been notoriously ineffective in coercing changes in authoritarian regime behavior, as the example of Burma clearly shows, and they seem especially ill-equipped to hasten the downfall of a government that has the support of its regional ally, Iran, and its Iraqi neighbor.
Turkey is the one actor in the region that has significant economic leverage and an increasing willingness to pressure Assad, but there are limits to what it can do. Despite the formal Turkish policy of "zero problems" with neighboring countries and burgeoning trade with Syria over the past decade, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denounced Assad's crackdown in response to popular domestic outrage over the killing of over 2,500 protesters. However, Ankara currently rejects sanctions and military intervention as policy options, and has no interest in the upheaval that would result from regime collapse or civil war.
The U.S. is not viewed favorably by the vast majority of Syrians, so it is unlikely to aid the cause of the opposition to be one of its most prominent boosters. Turkey has more credibility with Arab nations, and it represents the closest thing to a model that Arab opposition movements are going to be interested in emulating. The U.S. has no good alternative for pressuring Syria except to go through Turkey, but it is not a given that this will achieve the results Washington wants. Erdogan might not be willing to do anything so dramatic that he risks a breakdown in ties with Iran.
There is no guarantee that the European Union or Turkey will go as far as the U.S. has in sanctioning Syria's energy sector or demanding Assad's removal. Washington is asking them to jeopardize real economic interests to further a policy of regime change in yet another Muslim country. As in Iraq and Libya, it is regional neighbors and U.S. allies that will be living with the consequences of decisions that an authoritarian ruler "must go." The U.S. has few incentives to offer any of them to risk concrete interests to achieve a political outcome that so far only a few Western governments and an unknown number of Syrians desire.
Debating over how best to pressure Syria and push Assad out takes for granted that most Syrians share the goal of removing Assad from power. That is plausible, but we cannot know that for certain. Even if a majority welcomes this outcome, the large numbers of Alawite and Christian minorities in Syria are understandably wary of change or openly opposed to it because they fear what might happen to them after it occurs. Westerners have had a bad track record in the last decade of encouraging majoritarian rule in the name of democracy promotion only to have it empower illiberal and authoritarian forces. Washington and our allies need to be sure that we are not repeating the same mistakes in Syria.