A Better Friend: How the U.S. Can Support Transition in Syria

In Syria, the time has come to reflect on how to set up the best possible start for a legitimate successor government that will give it the strongest chance for a free, independent and democratic future.
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After the events of recent weeks, all eyes are again on the Middle East. Questions about America's response to the Arab Spring and how best to support the fragile new democracies of the region are at the forefront of the debate. In Syria, as the Bashar al Assad regime continues its brutal assault against its people, now in its 19th month, the time has come to reflect on how to set up the best possible start for a legitimate successor government that will give it the strongest chance for a free, independent and democratic future. Yesterday, September 28, the Friends of Syria group met in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. The U.S. announced increased humanitarian assistance and assistance to civilian opponents of Assad. 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, the United States, along with other members of the Friends of Syria, would declare any new oil or arms contracts with the Assad regime illegitimate and not binding should a future, legitimate government choose to repudiate them. This would further isolate the regime and signal that the economic pressure will not let up. But more importantly, it will help protect the eventual post-Assad successor from having to repay any new debt that the regime takes on to fund its oppression and help to give the new government a better start than that of other neighboring democracies that have emerged after the fall of brutal regimes.

Preemptive contract sanctions also strengthen existing sanctions. They would likely have small short-run effects relative to the impact of sanctions that the U.S., European, and other nations are currently imposing, but getting them in place now is essential to prevent new contracts that continue to fund the violent repression of the Syrian people and tie the hands of a future legitimate Syrian government.

The Dutch Foreign Minister chaired a recent meeting on sanctions in the Netherlands and announced that the group will aim to 'seal all the loopholes' in existing sanctions. As the law stands now, a U.S. citizen cannot enter into a contract with the Syrian government but a Russian citizen can -- and then use U.S. courts to enforce that contract if a subsequent, legitimate Syrian government repudiates it. This is clearly one such loophole that needs to be closed.

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 U.S. 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 U.S. and other nations are committed to supporting and assisting a new, legitimate Syrian government once Assad is gone. By adopting preemptive contract sanctions and encouraging other countries to do the same, the U.S. government can show the people of Syria that it is proactively looking to the future and doing what it can to help a democratic government get off to the most promising possible start the day after the fall of the Assad regime. The recent tragic attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya is a stark reminder that regime change is only the first step in rebuilding strong, stable democratic institutions in Arab Spring states. More must be done to signal that the international community will do what it can to support a legitimate success government after the fall of the dictators.