Syria: The reactions says it all – the effectiveness of EU sanctions

On 10 May EU revealed the names of those Syrian nationals who are on the EU sanctions list, as they have been been identified by the Council as being persons responsible for the violent repression against the civilian population in Syria. According to the decisions, Council Regulation (EU) 442/2011 and Council Decision 2001/273/CFSP their assets in EU are to be frozen and the are not to be allowed to enter EU-territory. These 13 individuals are:

1. Maher Al-Assad

Born on 8 December 1967; diplomatic passport No. 4138. Commander of the army’s 4th Division, member of Baath Party Central Command, strongman of the Republican Guard; principal overseer of violence against demonstrators.

2. Ali Mamlouk

Born on 19 February 1946 in Damascus; diplomatic passport No. 983. Head of General Intelligence Service; Head of Syrian Intelligence since 2005; involved in violence against demonstrators.

3. Mohammad Ibrahim Al-Chaar

Minister for the Interior in the government; involved in violence against demonstrators.

4. Atef Najib

Former Head of Political Security in Deraa; involved in violence against demonstrators.

5. Hafez Makhlouf

Born on 2 April 1971 in Damascus; diplomatic passport No. 2246. Colonel and Head of Unit in General Intelligence Directorate, Damascus Branch; close to Maher al-Assad; involved in violence against demonstrators.

6. Mohammed Dib Zeitoun

Head of Political Security; involved in violence against demonstrators.

7. Amjad Al-Abbas

Head of Political Security in Banias, involved in violence against demonstrators in Baida.

8. Rami Makhlouf

Born on 10 July 1969 in Damascus, passport No. 454224. Syrian businessman. Associate of Maher al-Assad; bankrolls the regime allowing violence against demonstrators.

9. Abd Al-Fatah Qudsiyah

Head of Syrian Military Intelligence and as such involved in the repression against the civilian population.

10. Jamil Hassan

Head of Syrian Air Force Intelligence and as such involved in the repression against the civilian population.

11. Rustum Ghazali

Head of Syrian Military Intelligence, Damascus Countryside Branch and as such involved in the repression against the civilian population.

12. Fawwaz Al-Assad

Involved in the repression against the civilian population as part of the Shabiha militia.

13. Mundir Al-Assad

Involved in the repression against the civilian population as part of the Shabiha militia.

There is of course one who is not part of the sanctions list – Bashar al-Assad. And there is a reason for that.

Just for the sake of clarity, Maher al-Assad is the younger brother of President Bashar al-Assad. Rami and Hafez Makhlouf are brothers. They are also Bashar and Maher al-Assads first cousins. Mundir and Fawwaz al-Assad are also cousins with Bashar and Maher al-Assad.

The sanctions furthermore prohibits the sell, supply, transfer or export, directly or indirectly, of equipment which might be used for internal repression to any person, entity or body in Syria or for use in Syria (for more on the prohibited equipment, see Council Regulation (EU) 442/2011 and Council Decision 2001/273/CFS ) as well as technical assistance and financing of said equipment.

But will sanctions or other forms of pressure from external actors have any effect on the Syrian regime? I would argue that not only does have effect, but that sanctions and diplomatic pressure has rattled an already weaken regime into, on one hand, concessions and on the other hand a show of arrogance and threats.

On 9 May Anthony Shahid of the New York Times interviewed Bouthaina Shaaban, the spokesperson of the Syrian regime, and confidant of the President. Suddenly, now that EU-sanction was to be unveiled Shaaban announced it was time for a national dialogue. What is odd is that she on one hand claims that these protesters are criminals and on the other hand that it is now time for a national dialogue with dissidents. Her claim that the sanctions of USA and EU are manageable rings hollow. Especially since EU has made it clear that the sanctions that enacted on 9 May and made public on the 10 May is only the first salvo of many more that could come should the Syria regime persist. Any ‘national dialogue’ would likely be nothing more then window dressing. Something to show off at SANA and national TV. And that is probably what will happen. All in an effort the placate the EU (and Turkey – more on this in next post).

Anthony Shahid followed up this with an interview on 10 May with the reclusive tycoon, cousin and confidant of President al-Assaad, Rami Makhoulf.

In the interview Makhlouf clearly rattled by the sanctions imposed on him and others inside the regime came of as both fearful, arrogant and threatening. On the protests he claimed that the Syrian elite would fight to the end in a struggle that could cast the Middle East into turmoil and even war. “We won’t accept it,” he said. “People will fight against them. Do you know what this means? It means catastrophe. And we have a lot of fighters.”

As for threats he made the interesting connection between stability in Syria and security of Israel:

“If there is no stability here, there’s no way there will be stability in Israel…No way, and nobody can guarantee what will happen after, God forbid, anything happens to this regime.” Asked if it was a warning or a threat, Mr. Makhlouf demurred. “I didn’t say war,” he said. “What I’m saying is don’t let us suffer, don’t put a lot of pressure on the president, don’t push Syria to do anything it is not happy to do.”        

As New York Times Anthony Shadid concluded – the regime has woven a narrative of ‘us or chaos’, something that they seem to be will to push as to make it a self fulfilling prophecy. Stability in the form of the continued rule by Bashar al-Assad. The interview also gave an telling glimpse into the co- decisionmaking in the ruling family. Makhlouf claimed that although Bashar al-Assad has final say in all matters policies where formulated as joint decisions. A rule by committee. This gets support from the above mentioned boisterous claims of Makhlouf – “we won’t accept it…we have a lot of fighters”.

The reaction to this interview was swift. The same day, 11 May, after it was published the Syrian ambassador to USA, Imad Mustapha, released a statement to the effect that Rami Makhlouf is a private citizen and does not speak for the Syrian government.

Makhlouf is not part of the Syrian government, he is part of the ruling family. It is inconceivable that he would make this interview with the message it contained without at least a tacit approvale by the President. This could signal a crack in the facade of the regime, but more probably the regime has used Makhloufs interview with NYT as a way to send a signal that the regime will not go quietly. And at the same time the regime is able to officially distance itself from the statement as per statement of Imad Mustapha.

EU has made it clear that more sanctions are being prepared. And there is a reason that Bashar al-Assad has been left out in the first round of sanctions. In the next round of sanctions it is highly likely that individuals in the military such as minister of defence Ali Habib Mahmud, deputy chief of staff Assef Shawkat would be on the sanction list. And President Bashar al-Assad. If the President is put on the sanction list it would more the  a loss off face. It would be a legal statement by the EU that they see the Syrian President as a criminal. He would be isolated and back to square one as after the killing of Rafik Hariri left only with friends such as Iran, Belarus, North Korea and Venezuela. If an investigation is opened against the Syrian President by the prosecutor of the ICC such a legal decision by the EU would not be taken lightly.

Another target EU might be eying is Cham Holding, the company Rami Makhlouf controls and with which he bankrolled the regime in its crackdown against protesters. Cham Holding is the company in Syria. With Cham Holding Makhlouf has managed to co-opt the Business community to the regime. By putting Cham Holding on the sanctions list EU would in effect ‘close the major tap’ on the Syrian economy. Another category that might be targeted are the business men who have invested in Cham Holding, and by this bankrolls the regime and the ongoing crackdown.

Finally if EU wants to pull out the big guns there is always the possibility of trade sanctions. EU is Syria’s number 1 trading partner. The trade was worth 5.4 billion Euro in 2009, of which 2.1 was Syrian export to EU. For EU Syria is small trading partner, clocking in on place 49.


About Leif Eriksson

Leif Eriksson has worked in the field of asylum at the Swedish Migration Agency specializing in the Middle East, Schengen and the Dublin Regulation, as Migration Attaché and head of the migration section at the Swedish Embassy in Damascus 2005 - 2008, as a resettlement consultant at the UNHCR branch office in Damascus 2008 - 2009, Consul at the Swedish Consulate General in Jerusalem 2012 - 2013 and associate RSD/RST officer at UNHCR in Beirut 2013 - 2014. He currently lives in Tbilisi, Georgia.
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