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Charles Dunne, Director of MENA Programs at Freedom House, posted a timely op-ed in Huffington Post over the weekend calling for preemptive contract sanctions against the Assad regime in Syria.  Charles' piece came on the heels of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meeting in New York, where countless speeches, meetings and behind-the-scenes discussions on the dire situation in Syria amounted to little more than handwringing.  While the US did announce increased humanitarian assistance and assistance to civilian opponents of Assad, the UNGA was a missed opportunity to do more.  Charles explains:

"While it would have been hard to get agreement on military action, the United States should have used the meeting to capitalize support for tougher sanctions against the Assad regime. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chaired the meeting and missed an opportunity to advocate for a new diplomatic option -- one that not only tightens the squeeze on the Assad regime but also signals that the international community will support a new, legitimate successor government as it starts to rebuild the country after Assad's departure."

Preemptive contract sanctions do just that.  Under this approach, first proposed by CGD, any new contracts with the Assad regime (for example, for oil or arms or loans) would be declared illegitimate. Given their ex-ante nature, the best time to try preemptive contract sanctions was months ago.  But Charles highlights two reasons why they are still a good option in Syria now:

"Preemptive contract sanctions are one of the few non-military tools that remain to increase pressure on the Assad regime. While Americans are appalled by the atrocities in Syria and support Assad's removal from power, a recent poll shows that they are not prepared to dispatch US troops to protect Syrian civilians, even as part of a broader coalition. Among Arabs, support for western military intervention is also very low. With little if any cost to those imposing them, preemptive contract sanctions provide an efficient and realistic diplomatic option, while preserving the possibility of stronger steps in the future, including military options.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, preemptive contract sanctions send a strong signal that the US and other nations are...proactively looking to the future and doing what [they] can to help a democratic government get off to the most promising possible start the day after the fall of the Assad regime."

With little (if any cost) to those imposing preemptive contract sanctions, that's a signal worth sending.  I hope that the draft Declaration Regarding Illegitimate Contracts with the Syrian Government will be among the ideas that is seriously considered at the next Friends of Syria sanctions working group meets in Japan later this year.

To learn more about how preemptive contract sanctions could work in Syria, watch Kim Elliott’s 4-min whiteboard video (with Arabic subtitles).


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.