Co-written by CGD senior fellow and director for Europe, Owen Barder
With relentlessly bad news out of Syria, the search continues for what the rest of the world can do to put pressure on Assad's regime and to lay the groundwork for a future, legitimate Syrian government. The case for preemptive contract sanctions is becoming ever more compelling. Under this approach, the United States, United Kingdom and other members of the Friends of Syria, would declare that new contracts with the Assad regime are illegitimate and that our courts should not enforce them if a legitimate successor government in Syria repudiates them. This could deter new loans and investments in Syria's oil or other sectors and send a signal to the Assad regime that the economic pressure will not loosen.
We have written before about how this tool could strengthen existing measures against the Assad regime. We've talked about how it is one of the few diplomatic tools left in the global search for ways to intervene. And we've highlighted how they could help get around Russia's veto of global sanctions at the UN Security Council, and deter support from countries that remain supportive of the Assad regime. But fifteen months after President Obama first called for the end of the Bashar al-Assad regime, the violence continues and is spilling over the border into neighboring countries.
So as government officials from the Friends of Syria sanctions working group prepare to meet in Tokyo on November 30, we thought we'd highlight two new developments that reinforce the case for using preemptive contract sanctions in Syria:
First, the civil war in Syria is far from over -- some estimates project that the relentless conflict will drag on for another year or more -- and the Assad regime will have to find ways to continue to finance the military's brutal crackdown on the Syrian people. Just this week, reports show that Iran has started construction of a $10 billion natural gas pipeline to Syria, a sign that some countries are still all too willing to do business with Syria and a move that the Associated Press called a "public show of confidence in Assad's ability to ride out the uprising." New contracts, such as this, and other loans to the Assad regime will leave the next government burdened with obligations incurred for odious reasons -- to support Assad's repression -- and not necessarily in the public interest. Preemptive contract sanctions would relieve a legitimate successor government from having to honor these contracts. Even if Iranian firms would be unlikely to use American or British courts to enforce these contracts, a future Syrian government could nullify them knowing that it could turn to European and American investors to help it rebuild. These sanctions would send a signal to business supporters of Assad that there simply is no future with him in power, and that encouraging him to leave -- sooner rather than later -- is the way to go.
Second, the Syrian opposition groups have united and the newly formed National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces is rapidly receiving backing from the international community, including formal recognition from France, the UK, and a number of countries in the region. The United States and European Union also recognize the new coalition as a legitimate representative of the opposition. With its increased international legitimacy, the Coalition hasn't been shy about its hopes to secure heavier weapons from Western and Arab countries, but many countries -- particularly the United States and United Kingdom -- are reluctant to go down that path. Preemptive contract sanctions provide one of the few nonlethal diplomatic options left for the United State, the United Kingdom and other nations to back up their rhetoric and show concrete support and protection for a future successor government.
For all these reasons, we ask: why wait? We hope that the draft Declaration Regarding Illegitimate Contracts with the Syrian Government will be among the ideas that is seriously considered at the Friends of Syria meet in Tokyo. As the saying goes: the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago; the second best time is today.